Yesterday we offered a brief workshop on utilizing shamanic techniques and ideas with people who have experienced major trauma. This is a workshop that teaches very useful skills, and we offer it by donation so no one is turned away. As far as I am concerned, anyone who attends, participates actively, and focuses on the material has made a major contribution.
At one point during the morning the topic turned briefly to the necessity of accepting responsibility for one’s actions when utilizing shamanic practices. Listening to the conversation, I was reminded of one of my truly beloved teachers who came from an Amazonian culture where everyone is a shaman; everyone shamanizes. That said, not everyone is considered equally accomplished, nor does everyone take on the responsibility of working with the spirits on behalf of the greater community. My teacher was responsible for the spiritual and political welfare of some thirteen villages. He was also the object of quite serious death threats from the Brazilian government and its allies. Still, at great personal risk, he did his best to aid those who needed him.
As we spoke, a young man who is committed to the shaman’s path, told us this story. The previous evening had been quite cold. He had gone out with a friend, stopping briefly at a local bar. As they left, they noted another young man stumbling off the sidewalk and into the street, where he collapsed. A number of other people had seen this, but did nothing, so the two intervened, helping the man, whom they did not know, out of the street. They then tried to help him home, but he was too intoxicated to walk, and kept falling asleep on his feet. Finally the two called the police, who in turn summoned and ambulance. Had they not cared, the young man might well have frozen to death, a tragedy that occurs at least once in many of our winters.
This story set us to thinking together about courage and integrity on the shaman’s path. It also created a transition to talking about race, ethnicity, and shamanism. Two of those attending have long been committed to the path. As we spoke, both referred to their Caucasian backgrounds as somehow disqualify them from being considered shamans, even though both are skilled shamanic practitioners. One has studied and practiced for over twenty years, and is highly respected in our community! I find this idea, that the spirits utilize primarily the criteria of race or culture to make their choices, odd; the spirits choose whom they will.
I am sometimes asked what I believe shamanism is. I usually reply that it is the practice of working with the spirits on behalf of the community. Often, this idea makes no sense to the questioner, yet is is a definition firmly rooted in many shamanic traditions of North and South America, and Asia. The spirits seek people to work with them! The work is collaborative, requiring a large dose of humility on behalf of the shaman and the spirits.
Perhaps the notion of serving community is misunderstood because so much popular culture focuses on shamans as powerful, commanding the spirits to do their bidding. While there are cultures where shamans are considered masters of the spirits, these seem to be in the minority. Perhaps our collective hunger for power over others blinds us to the ancient path of cooperation with the spirits for the good of the greater community, of which we are all, including the spirits, a part. In retrospect, it seems perfect that we found ourselves in this conversation during a workshop on healing trauma. After all, the practice of power-over largely fuels trauma in our world.
I believe it is good to think about the world as a place of cooperation, caring, and the sacred. Today, being St. Valentine’s Day, we are also reminded it is a place where we may practice love, even in the face of evil.
As I write, the evening is closing in on this coldest day of the winter. The sky over the lake is lit brilliantly by the setting sun. Like yesterday, it was a good day.