It has been a while since I have talked about shamanism. This is partially because I came to a point in my path where I realized that if people wanted authentic information about shamanism and spiritual practices, that they would find it (for starters, I would suggest either Holger Kalweit or Sarangerel’s books). I also realized that in some ways I was being unfair to neo-shamanism and new-agers, as the sort of practices that they gravitate towards are arguably what they need. Not everyone needs to immerse themselves like I (and plenty of others) have, or has a calling towards doing so (that inner urge to find deeper reality paired with a calling towards spiritual work itself).

But I have realized lately that there are a lot of people that are searching for information like this, and that it could propel them forward into such deeper terrain, if they are ready to do so. So I will admit my bias here, as I am a “Spiritual Worker”– I do not use the word “shaman” as I understand both the indigenous hatred at a bunch of white people coming in and then announcing that they are “Peruvian Shamans” or whatever the flavor of the month is… and I have no interest in identifying myself with the practices of “modern” or “neo-shamanism”, which is a lot different in scope than what I do.

So I will talk about the biggest differences between spiritual work and neo-shamanism here, and attempt to do so with as little bias as I am able to at this time, having been immersed or at one point studied both paths (I no longer do any sort of neo or “core” shamanic work, just as an FYI):

Spiritual Work isn’t safe
This is one of the biggest differences that I notice. Neo-shamanic work will state that this sort of exploration is safe, that there are safe places to go, that you just need to announce your “sovereignty” or imagine white light and you can control the cosmos, and everything in it.

In contrast, spiritual workers realize that there are no “safe zones” and that announcing your sovereignty and imagining white light surrounding you in some situations is as about as effective as stating that your house shouldn’t be robbed because it is yours. The chances that someone is going to rob it are minimal, but you telling the robber if they are in fact breaking in that it is your house, and that you are “sovereign” over it isn’t likely to do much.

This idea of safety has a lot do with the illusion of control. We have a lot of fear, and so it is easy to reach for illusions of having such great control that you literally control the Universe. That it is centered around you, or that if you just think right or act right enough nothing bad will ever happen to you. So the neo-shamanic realms are filled with these ideas about control, while people authentically interacting with spirits and the spiritual realms will realize that control is an illusion, and that using white light on everything doesn’t work.

There is a great quote by Gopi Krishna, by the way, that emphasizes this: “those men and women who arrogate to themselves a transhuman stature or position of authority… must have a poor opinion about the staggering dimensions of the universe”.

Believing that we are smaller, or even less in control, or less safe, than we would like to provide the illusion of ourselves being is what happens when you authentically interact with spirit. This is in contrast to neo-shamanic work and workshops, which provide the illusion of control and power to the individual (without much effort or cultivation required, as to allow for weekend workshops and the like). But interacting with strange spirits and lands and dimensions and even the inner aspects of Self isn’t safe. It requires courage, and cultivation, and spiritual workers will often come into situations and interactions in which they realize that they are a tiny human, and that there is no way that they will have control over a deity, or a nature spirit, or even an upset former human (spirit).

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Spiritual Work is about Spirits
Without spirits, there is no spiritual work. I find that this is one of the strangest things that I have to contend with in my line of work. “Shamanism” was discovered by anthropologists and psychologists who brought this work to the West. The difficulty with this is that it was either shown as the proverbial “other” (meaning an anthropologist describing things that they do not understand nor have background in) or more popularly, merged with pop psychology.

If we were to put things into simplicity, I find that neo-shamanism is largely about mental and emotional healing, while spiritual work is about spiritual healing and interactions (which then spans the spectrum– spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical, meaning that removing a spiritual block can create a lot of change, if the person receiving it doesn’t block it).

The reason why this came about is that people without “sight” translated what they believed to be shamanism/spiritual work and created entire modalities/techniques surrounding it. They may have not believed in spirits personally, or they may have just had their “lens” fixed to the point that they put it into their already developed container of psychotherapeutic mechanisms, or assumed it was just simply another method of psychology.

Shamanism is deeply animistic, meaning that the universe is deeply alive. It has soul. And there are things other than the Self. If someone cannot see or sense these things, it doesn’t mean that they are not there, but simply that the person has never experienced them. Creative visualization, mental mind-coaching, and psychotherapeutic work flavored with “light spiritual” type work can be helpful. We certainly have a lot of energy stuck in our minds, and as we move further and further away from experiencing the Earth, mental work is needed in order to fully heal.

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But Spiritual Work is about interacting with spirits and beings. This is why there is a “calling” or natural aptitude needed for this work.
There is “sight” needed for this work. This means that someone has the natural aptitude to see beyond. This is typically genetic. There is no way of convincing someone fully versed in psychological/neo-shamanic work that there are such things as spirits, or that they are always around us… or that curses are real (or that you can’t simply think them away or not believe in them a la The Skeleton Key), and that you can’t just white light things away from yourself.

One of the funniest examples of this was someone who in the same breath told me that she couldn’t get her fifteen year old son to clean his room, and then went on to tell me how she commanded dark spirits away from her. This is typical of the sort of neo-shamanic thinking. We love the illusion of control, and I have had the experience more than a few times of students with a fair amount of “shamanic” experience getting freaked out in my courses because a spirit actually starts interacting with them. We deeply fear the spiritual realms, and so the illusion of control persists… leading to a whole host of people stating that they can tell us everything about the cosmos, or about spirits, because it allows us to feel safe.

I do realize that telling people how prevalent spirits are, or that there are people that can curse you despite you not believing in them, is a bit of wasted breath, because if you don’t have the experience, and you really need to believe in this idea of control (based on fears of the spirit realm, typically and oddly), that people will engage in cognitive dissonance in order to keep their fears/needs for control in tact. The fact that things like curses are rare, and that someone fully engaged in neo-shamanic work would likely never interact with someone could authentically curse, or who has any sort of actual spiritual power or cultivation, is a very good thing, but it doesn’t help the “all spiritual work is psychological” movement.

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Typically the person being called to the spirits would show this capacity since birth (or even have divination while in utero, or be a “caul” baby or so forth), and would be further emphasized by having an illness, typically a significant respiratory illness, in early childhood. This would “wake up” this capacity further, as well as allow the person being called to move beyond their fear of death (which would move them beyond the illusion of neo-shamanic control, or need for that control).

This can only be taught to a certain extent. In neo-shamanic work, this calling has been turned into something that makes the person “special” or “superior”, or an explanation/reasoning for someone was terribly abused as a child, but that is far from the reality of what someone coming to terms with “sight” and a spiritual calling experiences. There typically is a lot of anger, fear, and grief about how every other pathway but spiritual work is seemingly blocked, and that resistance to doing this type of work (not answering this calling) means imbalances, pain, and disease.

So no, not everyone is a “shaman”. Not everyone can be their own “shaman” (and this is odd, because as a spiritual worker with a lot of experience I regularly have others work on me. We lack perspective about ourselves a lot of the time, and need assistance to work through big blocks).

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Shamanic Work is about Power
This is likely the thing that most people really, really do not want to hear. That is because I am going to talk about cultivation here. By cultivation I mean that every single spiritual worker who I have known has given up a large segment of their life in order to enter a “training period”. Whether this is via spirit or human teacher, this means that for five or ten years the called spiritual worker will go through the unique sort of hell that is requires so they can work through enough of their own garbage to be of service to other people.

Because that is the point of spiritual work. Neo-shamanic work is generally about self-help, while spiritual callings are generally about serving a function to the community. These are the people who have “sight” and have gone through intensive initiation in order to learn how to heal others.

This initiation and training period is also so that the spiritual worker can build enough power to be safe. Because spiritual work isn’t safe, and how you deal with that is building spiritual relationships (with spirits) that can keep you safe. These relationships do not spring up overnight, and spirits and helpers do not offer their guidance and support simply because you are you. Like any relationship, there is a lot of work that is required to build and maintain a relationship.

Personal power takes daily practices to build. For the rest of the life of the spiritual worker they will have daily practices, meditation, and have to take care of the spirits they have built relationships with. Because if this doesn’t happen, the spiritual worker gets sick.

Power is a funny thing, and one of the biggest differences that I notice between neo-shamanic work and spiritual work is that neo-shamanic work lacks any sort of power. I do not say this to be mean, but when you have never experienced power, it is easy to create illusions about it, or to pretend you have it. Power emanates from someone, and it is quite easy to spot if someone has it. The difficulty is that the neo-shamanic movement has stripped anything even resembling power from its techniques and teachings… because interacting with power isn’t terribly safe.

What I mean by that is the following example. It is well-known that people of “power” can be easily sensed. For example, there are spiritual workers/shamans who try to kill, harm, or otherwise steal “power animals” or other spirits or beings the spiritual worker has likely taken a huge amount of time and dedication to cultivate a relationship with. Now think about the average neo-shaman and if anyone would want their “power animal”. I realize in saying such things that I may have hordes of angry neo-shamans after me (or maybe one or two), but the biggest difference that I notice between neo-shamanic work and spiritual work is the distinct lack of power.

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Spirits are not Indentured Servants
Going off of the last point, I will say that spiritual relationships are a two-way street in spiritual work. Spirits are not something to come through, tell you how fantastic you are (I always laugh at the whole “I am the only/greatest/chosen one of my generation” that some people who claim to be in contact with “spirit” state), and then do whatever you want, in which ever manner you choose.

If we understand that spirits and beings are real, they are not flat one-dimensional energies that simply wait until you command them to do something. They are not slaves, or indentured servants. They are beings with their own beliefs, understandings, and desires. They are likely to have different viewpoints, understandings, and are more likely than not going to treat you (at least at first) like a kindergartener that might run with scissors.

This is, of course, if they care for you. Plenty of spirits don’t care about you. You are simply one human (so am I, so is your neighbor). And even with a natural capacity for sight, a relationship rarely starts with someone telling you the secrets of the Universe. From the neo-shamanic community I hear all the time about people who are in relationship with Yogananda, Kali, Hecate, with a side of fluffy, attractive power animal. In contrast, someone may spend several lifetimes (yes, I said that) just devoted to Kali.

Additionally, the idea of “safety” has created this thought that spirits are either “compassionate” or “non-compassionate”. Anyone who has interacted authentically with spirits will understand that this is an illusion, and that an archangel can be incredibly fierce, that deities can be jealous, that nature spirits don’t think like (or communicate like) us, and that most spirits are not evil– they simply are like humans are in their bodies– rather confused and filled with emotions and trauma that is blocking them from their path.

Most spiritual workers work with the understanding that interacting with spirits is a two-way street. We cannot expect something for nothing. Offerings as well as understanding why and how someone/thing would want to work with a spiritual worker is part of the path (similar to any physical relationship, it takes time, and you do not command anything).

If there is authentic contact with spirits, especially ones of power (and these relationships take even longer to build, typically with a lot of initiation involved to prove your worth. Yes, I said that you prove your worth to the spirit/being/etc. in order to show that you are ready and worthy to interact with them and to work with them), there is a realization that the spirits often know better than you. We have a tiny, human brain that sees linearly (for the most part. This is another differentiation, however, but even so) and so something that has been around for much (much, much, much) longer than you likely has a perspective that you should listen to.

I will continue this in Part Two (talking about how spiritual work isn’t a series of techniques, how spiritual workers actually need to be fairly sane, and how spiritual work actually gets you in touch with your inner “wild” and “other”, as well as other thoughts)