Shamanism is the most ancient spiritual practice known to humankind. Many anthropologists believe that the practice dates back over 100,000 years.
The word “shaman” comes from the Tungus tribe in Siberia and it means spiritual healer or one who sees in the dark. Shamanism has been practiced in Siberia, Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, Greenland, and native North and South America.
A shaman is a man or woman who uses the ability to see “with the strong eye” or “with the heart” to travel into hidden realms. The shaman interacts directly with helping spirits to address the spiritual aspect of illness and perform soul retrievals, retrieve lost power, as well as remove spiritual blockages. The shaman also divines information for the community. Shamans have and still act as healers, doctors, priests and priestesses, psychotherapists, mystics, and storytellers.
Shamanism teaches us that everything that exists is alive and has a spirit. Shamans speak of a web of life that connects all of life and the spirit that lives in all things. Everything on earth is interconnected and any belief that we are separate from other life forms including the earth, stars, wind, etc is purely an illusion. And it is the shaman’s role in the community to keep harmony and balance between humankind and the forces of nature.
There are a variety of ceremonies that shamans perform. They lead ceremonies to welcome children into the world, perform marriages, and help people transition to a good place at the time of death. They lead ceremonies to mourn the death of loved ones. There are important initiation ceremonies performed to mark certain transitions in a person’s life such as from moving from childhood into being an adult.
One of the major ceremonies a shaman performs is called a shamanic journey. A shaman is a man or woman who goes into an altered state of consciousness and travels outside of time into the hidden realms that many term non-ordinary. I see non-ordinary reality as a parallel universe to ours. The Australian aborigines call non-ordinary the Dreamtime. It is also referred to as the Other World in Celtic traditions.
In these hidden realities there are helping spirits, compassionate spirits who offer their guidance and also their healing help in behalf of all life on earth.
Typically shamans use some form of percussion, especially drumming or rattling, to go into an altered state that allows the free soul of the shaman to journey into the invisible worlds. In Australia you also see shamans use the didgeridoo and/or click sticks. Some traditions use sticks or bells. The Sami people of Lapland and Norway also use monotonous chanting called “joiking”.
Scientific study has found that when we are in an ordinary state of consciousness our brain waves are in a beta state. But when the shaman or shamanic practitioner listens to a rhythmic or monotonous drum beat, the brain waves slow down, first to an alpha state, which is a light, meditative state of consciousness, and then into a deeper state called a theta state. And that’s the state that allows the shaman’s free soul to journey into the invisible worlds having access to helping spirits.
When one looks at shamanic traditions around the world there are three common levels that are spoken about and also depicted through different paintings and other forms of artwork. The hidden worlds that the shaman travels to are known as the Under World or Lower World, the Middle World, and the Upper World. There are numerous levels in both the Lower World and also in the Upper World and they are outside of time.
Shamanism is a system of direct revelation. All shamans might describe experiences differently. And how the different experiences are interpreted and seen by others is how beautiful they all are.
In the invisible realms of non-ordinary reality there are a variety of helping spirits that can help the shaman with healing individuals, the community, and the planet.
The two most common types of spirits who work in partnership with the shaman are power animals also called guardian spirits as well as there are teachers in human form.
Shamanic cultures believe that when we are born the spirit of at least one power animal volunteers to remain with us to keep us healthy emotionally and physically and also protect us from harm. These animals are akin to the Christian belief in guardian angels.
The other form of helping spirit that shamans work with is a teacher in human form. These typically were the gods and goddesses of the culture, religious figures, and ancestors who wished to help.
These helping spirits work with the shaman to bring healing to individuals, the community, and the environment. The helping spirits are also consulted with when information is needed.
Illness from A Shamanic Perspective
Shamans look at the spiritual aspect of illness. An illness might manifest on an emotional or physical level but the shaman is looking for spiritual imbalance or disharmony.
From a shamanic perspective there are three classic causes of illness. There are unlimited healing ceremonies that can be performed to create a cure. The helping spirits of the shaman diagnose the cause and then help to perform the required treatment for healing. The shaman acts as a “hollow bone” where he or she merges with a helping spirit and the power of the universe to be a channel for healing energies.
The three causes of illness are power loss, soul loss, and having a spiritual intrusion or possessing spirit. Typically there are a combination of causes happening. Rarely do you see a person just having soul loss or just having a spiritual intrusion.
The helping spirits who look down on the human world have a perspective that often cannot be seen by a practitioner. Therefore shamans work in partnership with the helping spirits in performing healing work.
One cause of illness is power loss. This is where a person loses his power animal or guardian spirit that has been protecting him. Typical symptoms of power loss are chronic depression, chronic suicidal tendencies, chronic illness, and chronic misfortune.
When a shaman is shown that power loss has occurred a variety of ceremonies might be performed to retrieve a former power animal or guardian spirit to restore power and protection.
Over my thirty years of teaching and practicing shamanism I continue to be amazed at the power of this simple ceremony. I have seen people who are suicidal and depressed be cured when a helping spirit is restored to them.
Spiritual Intrusions and Possessing Spirits
Often when a person is missing a guardian spirit or his vital essence there is an opening in the body. Since the universe cannot stand a void, something might come up in to fill up that space. Shamans might perceive a spiritual intrusion that has entered into a client who is missing power and vital essence.
Spiritual intrusions come from negative thought forms. In indigenous cultures people understand the difference between expressing energy and sending energy. In the West we often do not understand the difference.
It is important for us to express our anger, frustration, sadness, etc. But we often send these energies to ourselves, others, and into the environment like a psychic arrow. And these energies can create what shamans call spiritual intrusions.
The signs of a spiritual intrusion would be a localized problem such as localized pain or some form of cancer. As shamans do not distinguish between emotional and physical illness a spiritual intrusion might manifest as chronic anger or depression.
In the treatment of this kind of spiritual problem the shaman works with his or her helping spirits to diagnose the nature and location of the spiritual intrusion. And then the shaman performs an extraction where the intrusion is removed.
When I first started my shamanic healing practice back in the 1980’s I specialized in extraction work and had great success in treating cancer, depression, and even problems such as chronic fatigue and lupus doing this work. I also found this healing method to be successful with women who were having a hard time getting pregnant.
Shamans heal both the living and deceased. How they heal the deceased is by performing psychopomp work. This word comes from the Greek word psychopompous , which literally means leader of souls. When we die there is usually a graceful transition into a transcendent reality. In shamanism it is understood that when someone suffers a traumatic death such as murder, accident, war, drug overdose, suicide, being in a terrorist attack there is a possibility that the soul might need assistance in crossing over into the transcendent realms. The reason for this is that the soul might get confused at death and remain caught here in what we call the Middle World.
A spirit stuck in the Middle World might just wander this world or it might enter into a person who is missing his vital essence or power. And this would cause a possession. This is one cause of schizophrenia and multiple personality from a shamanic point of view.
In this case it is the role of the shaman is to perform a depossession where he or she guides the spirit out of the Middle World to a transcendent reality.
Many indigenous cultures do not have the kinds of emotional illness we experience in the West as psychopomp work is regularly done when people die and also the need for depossession work is so well understood.
Soul Retrieval: How Shamans Heal Trauma
When I was doing the research for my book Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, I found that most shamanic cultures around the world believe that illness is due to the loss of the soul.
It is believed that whenever we suffer an emotional or physical trauma a piece of our soul flees the body in order to survive the experience. The definition of soul that I am using is soul is our essence, life force, the part of our vitality that keeps us alive and thriving.
The types of trauma that could cause soul loss in our culture would be any kind of abuse: sexual, physical, or emotional. Other causes could be an accident, being in a war, being a victim of a terrorist act, acting against our morals, being in a natural disaster (a fire, hurricane, earthquake, tornado, etc.), surgery, addictions, divorce, or death of a loved one. Any event that causes shock could cause soul loss. And what might cause soul loss in one person might not cause soul loss in another. Shamans believe that alarm clocks can cause soul loss. I think we all know what they mean.
It is important to understand that soul loss is a good thing that happens to us. It is how we survive pain. If I were going to be in a head-on car collision the last place I would want to be at the point of impact is in my body. My psyche could not endure that kind of pain. So our psyches have this brilliant self protect mechanism where a part of our essence or soul leaves the body so that we do not feel the full impact of the pain.
In psychology we talk about this as dissociation. But in psychology we don’t talk about what disassociates and where that part goes. In shamanism we know that a piece of the soul leaves the body and goes to a territory in what shamans call non ordinary reality where it waits until someone intervenes in the spiritual realms and facilitates its return.
Although soul loss is a survival mechanism the problem from a shamanic point of view is that the soul part that left usually does not come back on its own. The soul might be lost, or stolen by another person, or doesn’t know the trauma has passed and it is safe to return.
It has always been the role of the shaman to go into an altered state of consciousness and track down where the soul fled to in the alternate realities and return it to the body of the client.
There are many common symptoms of soul loss. Some of the more common ones would be dissociation where a person does not feel fully in his or her body, alive and fully engaged in life. Other symptoms include chronic depression, suicidal tendencies, post traumatic stress syndrome, immune deficiency problems, and grief that just does not heal. Addictions are also a sign of soul loss as we seek external sources to fill up the empty spaces inside of us whether through substances, food, relationships, work, or buying material objects. Anytime someone says, “ I have never been the same since” a certain event and they don’t mean this in a good way, soul loss has probably occurred.
You can really see how much soul loss there is today as we put money over life. Anytime someone says that we have to kill other life forms for material gain that person must be suffering from soul loss. Anytime someone feels that buying one more car or that gathering material objects will bring happiness that person is suffering from the loss of soul. As you can see we are looking at a great deal of planetary soul loss today as you watch how we behave towards each other and the rest of life.
Coma is also soul loss. But in coma there is more of the soul out of body than in the body. Coma is very complicated to work with today for many reasons. It takes skill on behalf of the shaman to find out which way the soul is trying to go. Does the soul want to re-enter the body? Or does it need help moving on which would lead to the death of the patient? There is a lot to say about this topic and it beyond the scope of this article.
Today there has been a resurgence in the interest of the practice of shamanism. We now have many hundreds of wonderful shamanic practitioners reintroducing the practice of soul retrievals into our culture. And I have collected thousands of case studies of successful healing of a variety of emotional and physical problems.
It is interesting to note that as soul loss was so understood in shamanic cultures people who suffered traumas were given a soul retrieval within three days after a trauma occurred. Today as we have not been practicing soul retrieval, modern day practitioners are going back ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years or even more looking for lost soul parts.
Also in a shamanic culture the individuals knew what was out of balance in their lives that might have caused an illness or issue to occur.
In our culture we are unaware of what is out of spiritual harmony that is creating illness. And often soul loss happened so young we are unaware of the unconscious patterns we are living out due to our first soul loss. We are always trying to retrieve our soul. And how we do this is by repeating the same trauma over and over again. The names might change of the people involved in our life story, but the story is often the same.
After a soul retrieval people feel more present in their bodies and in the world, they become more conscious of behavior that might be out of balance and disharmonious. When we are numb we might be aware that things in the world are not right but we can easily distract ourselves from feeling a need to change. When we are fully “inspirited” there is no place to retreat to and we are more inspired to change our lives.
I believe that once a person has his or her soul brought back the client now has to do some work. If the person has done a lot of personal work the soul retrieval might be the end of the work. If not the soul retrieval would be the beginning of the work.
Once any kind of shamanic healing work is performed it is up to the client to look at how to create a healthy life style and attract healthy relationships that will support wholeness and a life filled with healing. How do we want to use the energy that was returned from the soul retrieval and our returned vitality to create a positive present and future for ourselves? And how do we bring passion and meaning back into our lives again so that we thrive instead of just survive? All these issues I call “life after healing” and are crucial to create long term healing after a soul retrieval or extraction work.
I write about spiritual practices we can bring into our lives to create a positive present and future in my books Welcome Home: Following Your Soul’s Journey Home and Medicine for the Earth: How to Transform Personal and Environmental Toxins and How To Thrive in Changing Times.
This is vital work for the times we live in. The earth wants her children home and she wants them home now. It is time to come back home again and take our rightful place on the earth. It is our birthright to fully express our souls and create the world we want to live in. And it is our birthright to shine as brightly as the stars above us. It is time to share our light again in the world.