Who The Spirits Choose

Winter_SunsetYesterday 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.




21 thoughts on “Who The Spirits Choose

  1. So many good things to think about here re: responsibility. Why are we here? To be a distraction, an entertainment, useful or inspirational? Keeping in mind a calling to serve the community while “working with the spirits” and checking where you might be on that spectrum between distraction and inspiration is something I want to practice more intentionally. Thank you for this post!

    1. Scillagrace, I find myself sliding to the distraction/entertainment end of the spectrum as the winter winds down. I’m trying to pick up a book in the evenings, rather than turn on the TV, and having limited success. One would think it relatively easy to get to the studio and do some creative work, but by the end of the day, that seems a great challenge. Iam getting a tad better at doing some housework. Then there is the meditation practice……So the practice continues.

  2. Great post! very thought provoking. Who the Spirit Choose – if we call spirit will answer, but then we have a responsibility that when Spirit calls, we will answer. This takes humility and as you mentioned, we must work in connection with spirit, we do not have a place of power to command. I also like your attitude on who attends your workshops – everyone has something they can teach – students and teachers alike.

    1. Deanna, We want people to have access to tools. We also do not believe in selling the Medicine. At the same time, we need to pay the bills. It is an interesting conundrum. Thank you fr joining the conversation!

  3. I absolutely agree with your definition of what a Shaman is, and that is does not matter which race or culture from which they are born. I’d also add that one of the reasons for misconceptions about what Shamanism is would be the common cartoonish portrayals in all things media and poorly-written history lessons.

    1. Good Morning Blog Woman! Sure is fascinating the way popular anthropology and the media mix and flatten everything. Of course, there are those shamans who come from long families of shamans and who work within a very carefully delineated cultural tradition. There is also the immense and vexing issue of cultural appropriation. The media is often seems incapable of making crucial distinctions and creating viable representations.

  4. Hi Michael, just wondered, what is your view about what we term as mediums, in relation to the shaman’s of your tradition? Are there any differences, or similarities?

    1. Hi Andy, This is a murky area. Some mediums are shamans, some shamans are mediums, and some shamans are not mediums in the usual sense of the term. I was trained by teachers from several traditions, and mediumship was viewed differently by each. Anthropologists have tended to lump them together, or keep them totally separate. Neiter position is very helpful.

      1. Hi Andy, It isn’t very clear. Most mediums are not shamans, and probably most shamans are not mediums. Generally, shaman’s do not give up their awareness to another entity. Of course, in China and parts of Mongolia, they can well be mediums…..

  5. It is so difficult to talk about shamanism. I tend to just keep my mouth shut. It’s like you are trying to communicate an experience but the other person is only interested in the language you are using – oh, this is how you form the past tense? – and they are not paying attention to what you are actually talking about.

    People often get so fixated on the rituals and accessories of this or that tradition that it’s almost impossible to get it through that this is not what makes shamanism shamanism. Shamanism is not a religion, it is not a pre-established system where the individual has to play a certain pre-determined role to be given a ready-made reward. There is no “one true” shamanism. I’m not sure why it is so difficult to imagine alternative ways of relating to the sacred, but it seems that most people prefer to just try and put shamanism in the “religion” box. And I find that very frustrating.

    1. Whirlbee, There is not much I can add to your comment. Sums things up well. I do think shamanism is a way of approaching the sacred, even as it is focused on maintaining the health of the community. i hope folks who stop by take the time to read your thoughts here.

  6. I find this very interesting Michael, as I’ve heard arguments suggesting that we should only try to work with spirits or deities of our own culture rather than appropriating those of other cultures, but I am attracted to the qualities of those from many cultures.

    1. Jadi, Thank you. I am glad, and feel lucky, to have such thoughtful people following my blog, and joining the conversation. I am aware that your contributions, and those of so many others, make the blog what it is.

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