Shamans, Neoshamans, and Societal Issues

Well, the technology gremlins have been active this morning. If you have been inundated with blog post announcements, I apologize……

“Social justice cannot be rendered by people who are not actively engaged in the society they wish to see justice in. Nor can shamans effectively shamanize if they turn their backs on the society that their clients are coming from. How one interacts with society is, to be sure, a personal set of boundaries. But how is it that so many of us will push boundaries in the spirit world, and yet won’t challenge physical-world boundaries, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of our clients?” via Therioshamanism

This quote ended a long and deeply thoughtful post by Therioshamanism last week. In the post, the author writes about many of the challenges facing contemporary shamans of all persuasions. Perhaps foremost amongst those challenges is the temptation to focus on the needs of the individual client at the expense of societal and global issues. Yet, as the author points out, our clients are deeply effected by  the very social and natural forces neoshamans are prone to ignore.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the confluence of  core, neo, and traditional shamanism. The world is shrinking, and as it does, our interactions increasingly influence how we all think about, and practice our art. I imagine this is particularly true for those of us who practice in urban settings.

There are, in the world, a myriad of shamanisms. Traditional shamanic practice is highly culturally dependent, even though shamans often learn from their peers in other cultures. Yet in our market driven, highly networked word, information, theory, and techniques are readily stripped of their cultural meaning and enter the market as information commodities.Much is lost in the transition.

I have benefited greatly from teachers, some now having journeyed over to the spirit world, who chose to teach me something of their culture and their understanding or shamanism or other medicine. I am forever in their debt. Most of these women and men straddled traditional culture and the urban world. They remain remarkable teachers, partially as they demonstrate with their lives how one may live and heal in many cultural frames. This is a profoundly healing message for me as a person of Mixed Blood.

I am deeply appreciative of the courage Therioshamanism showed in writing about the problems inherent in contemporary shamanic practice. At the same time, I am concerned about one passage in the post:

“And yet neoshamans persist in working with templates that are based on older, smaller cultures’ shamanisms. To an extent, yes, you can learn from your predecessors, but it doesn’t do a damned bit of good if you can’t apply it to your own community’s unique situation. We face greater systemic problems than ever.”

In most Traditional cultures the shaman’s primary role is to bring balance to the community. Healing individuals is an essential aspect of this role, but it is not the core task. The above quote essentially misses this. Further, it continues the systematic erasure of Indigenous practices and cultures as vibrant, living traditions, traditions that re highly responsive to the changing world. Additionally, it is difficult to imagine a more overwhelming systemic threat than the European invasion of the Americas. We First Nations peoples, are, after all, still here. We have learned to survive and adapt. Many of us hold the genes and knowledges of our ancestors from both sides of the great waters.

Finally, we may well be in a time where community as a collection of diverse persons is endangered. Problems are societal and global, yet they are felt most acutely at the local and regional level. There may be no solid sense of community at any of these levels of organization. So, one may well ask, what a shamanic practitioner is to do when community is threatened or absent?

None of this takes away from the central thesis that visionary healers cannot ignore the gathering storm of regional and global issues. We ignore them at our peril, and the peril of the very individuals and families we wish to aid.

13 thoughts on “Shamans, Neoshamans, and Societal Issues

  1. Again, your post cuts right to the heart of an issue I’ve been personally wrestling with for a while now. At this time in my life (just about 2 years shy of 50), the urge is to let go of popular culture, to understand it as a soul-less creation based on fear and greed, and to pursue more spiritual endeavors. The obvious games, ridiculous corporate bailouts, scandals of the week. . .all these things have led me to turn a deaf ear to most of what society at large calls “the real world”.

    I have, in effect, circled the wagons closer, and focused on the healing needs of my immediate community.

    I often find myself rejecting, as a matter of course, anything to do with the “outside world”.

    Your post calls me on this, and reminds me why I started down this path in the first place.

    Thank you, Michael, as always for your poignant words…

    1. I think this discussion is complex. There are SO MANY PROBLEMS that need to be addressed. I find myself, and many of those around me dealing with compassion fatigue. (Thank goodness for young people!) I often want nothing so much as to escape to the studio and write and make art and photography. (Also, time in the evening without mosquitoes to sit by the outdoor fire.)

      I guess I am one of those people, I imagine like you, seeking balance, and trying to remember the load is the responsibility of the community. We may only do what we can. (I am also a Red Sox fan…..)


      1. It’s unfortunate, (and also ego) that “what we can” often seems like not enough. When the results are in, it’s easy to look back and see the steps that brought them about.

        I once heard the work described as walking a tightrope in a darkened room armed with a flashlight. Faith keeps us balanced, and spirit shows us the next step. We have to believe the other end of the rope is out there, and that Spirit will get us across.

        Easy to say. Sometimes not easy an example to live.

        Ultimately, though, it must be our love of all that is that drives us to these questions. Were it not for that, we’d still be asleep…

  2. I practice contemporary shamanism, discovered the path when I was a kid and was always viscerally repelled at the thought of ripping off indigenous peoples of their practices, told Michael Harner so. After all, there is a shamanic tradition within the mystical traditions of most world religions so we white Europeans can afford to leave Native peoples alone. Yes shamans should be concerned with the larger world community. I have always sought that broader range of influence, after all there isn’t much time left. I am a psychotherapist, political and community activist and I have a newspaper column. I don’t broadly advertize myself as a shaman since I don’t want my work associated with popular shamanism which tends to be permeated with new age culture , is over intellectualized, over simplified and over retailied.

    1. Hi Louise,
      I am glad you commented!
      I do not think Indigenous people have a market on shamanic experience. The spirits choose whom they will, and often at an early age. Most shamans do not call themselves shamans. Of course, in a market driven society, there are enormous challenges if one identifies as a shaman publicly or not. When the elders tell one to be public, how does one do that!? Anyway, as I become older, I have begun to think all that really matters is integrity. Part of having integrity is sharing with the world where one’s ideas and training comes from, and acknowledging the cultural contexts from which they arise.

      I have had wonderful teachers, many of whom are now my friends and colleagues. Among the very best healers in that group are people trained by Michael Harner. Some are Indigenous and would have not had any access to training without Michael’s aid. So while I think he errors gravely by decontextualizing everything (a colonial strategy), he also does much good. Oh, how complex and beautiful the world is!

      Finally, I dropped by your website and much enjoyed your playfulness. I fully intend to read more about you and your work. Please stay in touch.

  3. Such a difficult line we walk. I, too, have known many healers trained in Harner’s mtehods. Very many of them with deep integrity and devotion to the path. Most have taken their initial training and gone deeper with it, and into it. Those who’ve fully opened themselves up to the intent of Spirit have gone on to do wonderful things.

    I, too, cringe at the commercialization of the spiritual path, in any of its myriad forms. Every time I see a “come to Peru and do an ayahuasca ceremony with a real SHAMAN” vacation ad, it fries me.

    I think Michael said it best when he said that what matters is integrity. If one makes oneself completely and honestly available to spirit, no matter what path they choose to walk, they will get put to work…

  4. Great conversation, I thank you. I think that “community” as a concept is fluid and continuously evolving. The moving point one keeps one’s eye on, i.e the center of “gravity,” is the health of core attachment which community alive and vital. Among the primary threats to this core are burgeoning sociopathy, the escalating pace of change and overloading of information that exceed the capacity of people to reprocess and reintegrate adaptive responses within protective social bonds. I have felt called to take an active role in assisting that adaptation by opening up creative avenues that can speed up this adaptive capacity while helping to reground and reconnect people at this core level.

    I am puzzled by concerns about where we “choose” to focus our efforts i.e the individual versus various levels of community healing. I have never felt I have been offered the choice . Instead as I move through my life, I am presented, from a deeply instinctual imperative, with everything that must be reworked, killed off, recreated, in micro to macro situations, moment to moment. We are after all “hollow bones” at the axis of soul and spirit and do not, at basis, will ourselves. We are called to act with wisdom and integrity, to serve our Higher Power and to master and integrate our power drives in healthy ways. Otherwise we ourselves become a danger to our communities.

    1. Louise,
      Thank you for this heartfelt comment. I believe you are right about the multiple challenges people face. In my experience, we respond to a constant stream of choices for our attention. We are both hollow bones, and complex evolving systems making choices. Balance is standing in both worlds, however briefly.

      I’m not sure the protective holding of community works most places any more. Maybe there are just too many pressures on community, in the traditional sense of a collection of diverse persons, for community to hold. Part of healing is building some SENSE of community for one’s self. This is not “community” in the traditional way of seeing it, yet it is crucial for health. I think sometimes that the concerns of rural America, and tribal people, do not translate to urban listeners very well. Where some traditional sense of community persists, people want to hold on that. Yet the forces working to undermine traditional communities are immense and sustained.

      I suspect greed is the largest threat we face, but that is open for debate. Anyway, holding joy and humor, enjoying others, and celebrating life keep us a bit sane. Acknowledging the societal and environmental forces at play in our lives and those of our patients is just part of that sanity.

  5. Generally speaking, the path is chosen for you before you are born, in a kind of agreement with God and your soul. If you are chosen you don’t escape it easly. Since true healing begins and ends with the Divine, the spiritual world will make it known if you are to go on the path. There is no need to announce it as people will be sent to you via the spiritual world.

    1. This is such a tricky question. Even in Native America there is great disagreement about the subject. The commercialization of shamanism has made the disputes that much more intense and heart felt.

      1. In my view, we might be talking about various types of spiritual experiences under the general term shamanism. In some of these cases the path is chosen out of ego more than some inner call or directive. Alot of Americans have felt a sense of spiritual and emotional impoverishment and this can be one compensation. Those raised in certain ways or cultures where it is understood what it means to walk the path would not be so eager to pursue it. The many immature souls who do can do great harm

      2. Yes, there can be great harm. And yes, there is a great sense of spiritual longing out there. I imagine the spirits are ultimately the ones who will make decisions about who they work with. Without a cohesive culture, and small communities where we know one another, these questions become very tricky indeed.

  6. I think there are two intimately connected, yet often APPARENTLY separate forces at work here, neither of which can be ignored, and each of which must be respected. The Elders who sit beside the council fires of tradition and pass their teachings on to a select few are a deep well of purity. Yet there are those who would hold the traditions so closely as to stifle them.

    While those who would carry forth the light and heat of those council fires to new and distant lands are also to be honored for their work…provided they likewise retain a sense of spiritual purity. Spirit chooses to move as it will…not one of us can claim ownership of that. Yet we must never put ourselves forth as that which we are not, nor claim that to which we have no title.

    If a tradition (e.g. ecstatic drumming) is practiced among many cultures, it is the property of none of them, and might, therefore become an integral practice of any culture…especially one struggling to find its own spiritual center. It is in this way, ironically enough…or perhaps NOT ironically…that two divergent cultures might in fact become connected, and learn to share the better part of each.

    In a sense, then, it is the wisdom of the old ways, expressed in new and sometimes culturally updated terms, which might succeed in bringing both parties together for the greatest good of all…

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