Q&A About Shamans

What is a shaman?

The literal definition is “one who knows or sees.” A shaman knows or sees how to work with energy and the spirits of nature to create shifts in health for individuals or communities. They often utilize healing rituals and specific ceremonies to foster wholeness or well-being and to encourage balance and right relationship. Though shamanic traditions exist(ed) all over the world, the word “shamanism” is from the Tungusic/Siberian and was adopted into English by white anthropologists studying in Asia.  It became the umbrella term for English-speakers to describe all ancestral medicine traditions.

Is it like Native American spirituality?

Yes and no. Again, shamanic traditions are practiced all over the world, sometimes blending with religions like Catholicism and Buddhism. At their core, they are all nature-based and earth-honoring practices, with many rituals and ceremonies for healing and connection to Spirit in all Its forms. In the US, we associate shamanism with Native imagery and concepts because of Native visibility in our culture, but keep in mind that Hollywood has given us a distorted idea of Native Americans (who are incredibly diverse and tend not to use the word “shaman” at all). I know of contemporary Celtic, Scandinavian, Tibetan, African, Korean, and Peruvian shamanic practitioners, just to name a few.

Can anybody be a shaman?

Some cultures say that a shaman is a very specific and rare person who trains for years and it’s presumptuous even to call yourself one. Others say that we all have medicine and wisdom within us that we’re meant to share, an “inner shaman.” My personal view is that shamanism is like music: we all have a birthright to enjoy and study music if we feel called to it, though not everyone is meant to be a professional. Absolutely, you can take lessons and have music be a part of your life, but you may never compose, record, or play Carnegie Hall. We aren’t all called to be practicing shamans and that’s as it should be, because we need everyone’s diverse skills and talents.

What about all of these programs and trainings that promise shamanic experiences?

It’s wonderful that we have so much opportunity to study with gifted healers all over the world; it’s the first time in history that this is possible. It feels to me that we’re reconnecting with our ancestors and with the Earth, both very healing and profound ways to participate in the paradigm shift. This is amazing! However, there’s a lot of marketing out there and lots of people are making money from our eagerness to feel something.  No matter what the ads say, you won’t be a shaman just because you spent a weekend at a retreat center; however you may be a shaman who trains there from time to time (like in the music analogy above). In other words, no one can sell you a spiritual experience or make you something you aren’t meant to be, but gifted teachers can guide you to a sense of discovery that could be well worth the investment. Use your discernment, start slowly, and remember that there are free or low-cost ways to encounter these teachings to get a sense of what you really need before you sign up for a major training.

So then how do you know if you’re a shaman?

There are a few markers, and shamans may have one or more:

  1. A near-death experience or major illness, usually in childhood, that leaves you with enhanced perception of the worlds beyond the veil
  2. Inheriting the techniques and gifts from an elder, usually a parent or grandparent
  3. Spontaneous initiation, or the sudden and uncontrollable awakening to the world of spirit, usually in adulthood

Regardless of these three markers, a shaman must actually be able to produce results. The community will tell you if you’ve helped them—-or not. Many shamans get sick if they don’t do their work; they don’t really have a choice.

It’s also like being in love; you just know, regardless of whether or not you want or try to feel it. At some point, you may just have to accept that you’re in this relationship.

Are there good shamans and bad shamans?

Just like in allopathic medicine, there are real healers and there are quacks. There are those who honor a calling and their clients, and those who use their skill as a way to manipulate and profit from others. Sometimes knowledge is a dangerous thing when it’s wielded by someone with bad intentions or who is generally irresponsible. Anyone can choose to practice with love and a commitment to integrity—or not. Our free will allows us to choose how and with whom to work.

How do I know if a shaman is the “real deal?” 

I work with other practitioners for my own healing, so I’ve asked myself this question. There are a thousand different traditions and approaches and everyone has their own personality, so there’s no single obvious characteristic that makes a good healer. In my experience, though, there are a few key “real deal” traits to look for:

1. They’ve trained and studied. While some people can do shamanic (or other healing) work purely by instinct, they are few and far between.

2. They walk their talk. At its best, the shamanic path fosters humbleness, truthfulness, and personal practice. To keep the ego in check and be of good service, it’s best for a practitioner to be doing their inner work and maintaining a connection to Spirit.

3. They don’t charge exorbitant fees or continually ask for more money. Reciprocity is important and it’s reasonable to ask for payment, but if you feel like you’re being taken for a ride then you probably are.

4. They don’t make promises. Healing and perspective shifts are always possible, but outright cures simply may not be in the cards. Anyone who guarantees that you’ll feel a certain way or have a definite result is suspect. One of the most important practices in shamanism is non-attachment to outcomes: none of us truly knows what will happen next or what Spirit might have planned for us. A good shaman facilitates the next step on your path – but they know they don’t make the path itself.

5. Trust your own gut. I often feel a sense of safety, groundedness, or a lightness in my heart when I meet a good healer at the right time, and a sort of turn-off/tune-out with someone who’s not for me. Practice paying attention to your own subtle navigation system and you’ll be more likely to find the right support.

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