Linda Neale's Blog

What is a Shaman?

Linda Neale - Monday, October 03, 2011

On a recent radio show, I was introduced by the well-meaning interviewers as a "shaman".   I was alarmed.  Nothing in my written bio mentioned that word, and I had a minute or so of commercial time to consider how to respond.  Many things went through my head in that minute.  I thought about ceremonial leaders who have let others define them, allowing people to call them "medicine man", "shaman" or "chief".   I thought about Casimirro Mamallacta, an 80 year old Kichwa ayowaska shaman friend who knows the medicinal uses of every plant in his Ecuadorian rain forest.  I thought about the weekend shamanic workshops you can find everywhere on the internet.  I remembered the years of intense training my Dine (Navajo) friend Patrick went through to become a hitaali, or singer.  I could let the interviewers' comments go, and begin the process of allowing others to define me --  after all, some people say that it's the community that defines who is a shaman, who is a medicine person, and who is not.  But I've met real traditional shamans, and I have too much respect for them and their training to allow that to happen.


After my long commercial minute was over, I thanked the hosts, and then corrected their introduction of me as nicely as possible. 


But it led me to consider the question, "what is a shaman?"  If you google that question, you'll get many answers.   You'll see all kinds of sites for weekend shamanic workshops, including more than one that purports to teach  "shamanism in a comprehensive, individually supervised internet course series." There are comic book characters and record albums named "Shaman".  In general, however, the definitions tend to involve healing, intercession between the spiritual and physical worlds and herbalism. And you'll find that shamanism and ceremonies don't necessarily go together.  It's possible to be a ceremonial leader without being a shaman.


I do not want to deny the value of modern shamanic training -- from practitioners like Michael Harner, Sandra Ingerman and others.  This kind of training has helped many people, including some very good friends, open up to a spiritual life, increase their creativity, and much more.


However, I think it's important to make a distinction between this modern approach to shamanism and the real thing.  The traditional training of a medicine person or shaman is intense, usually involving long periods of isolation, fasting, and suffering. Danish anthropologist Knud Rasmussen in the 1920s quoted one Inuit shaman about his preparation: “True wisdom is only to be found far away from people, out in the great solitude, and it is not found in play but only through suffering. Solitude and suffering open the human mind, and therefore a shaman must seek his wisdom there.”

If you want to learn from traditional elders and medicine teachers, you can’t just search one out and show up on their doorstep expecting them to teach you. They don’t offer weekend workshops. Rather, after attending some of their ceremonies, you may get permission to start helping them household tasks, such as splitting wood, and then with some of the ceremonial preparation. You learn just by being there, watching, and Listening.


As Sandra Ingerman says, in a you tube video, "We have to make a distinction between an actual shaman and people who are practicing shamanic practices today...  Being a shaman is not something you can pick for yourself.  In a shamanic culture, shamans weren't exactly excited about being picked...because it meant a hard life... To actually call yourself a shaman is seen as bragging about your power, and in shamanism, whenever you brag about your power, you get the big "sure enough" and lose it."


LET ME KNOW WHAT YOU THINK by commenting here.  I'm eager to hear from my friends who have had shamanic training and those who have not.  What do you mean by shamanism?  I'll post your responses.

Dana commented on 03-Oct-2011 11:12 AM
To me the comment by the interviewers shows our cultures lack of understanding of what a shaman is. We don't have predominant examples of respected elders much less shamans in American culture. I think more and more people are aware of this and would like
to create it. As you said becoming a shaman requires some pretty intense training and experiences. I have been studying with Tzun Tzun who was trained in Tibet and his reports of transmissions and ceremonies with his teacher are incredible and very different
from what I've seen and heard of shamanic training in the west.
Jana Shannon commented on 03-Oct-2011 11:18 AM
Linda... I agree with you fully. When we find our path, the first thing we want to do is rush, the result of our too fast technological society where information is available instantly at our fingertips. And our societal obsession with titles. In truth
we are all just pilgrims. Any title I give myself is bragging, any title anyone else gives me is generally misguided, due to someone trying to give honor where it is not due. Empty respect, for it comes without understanding. However, as society is obsessed
with titles, sometimes we must assume them to demonstrate credibility in a chosen field. A catch-22 if you will......
Joann Albrecht commented on 03-Oct-2011 11:33 AM
Thank you!
Carolyn Winkler commented on 03-Oct-2011 01:54 PM
I have taken 3 classes with Michael Harner over a period of 30 years. Introduction to Shamanism where you learn to journey and go to the lower and upper world and bring back information for others. Shamanic Counseling where you journey and ask a question
you have not been able to answer and have struggled with for over a year to get an answer and lastly Shamanic Divination where you learn Shamanic Divination techniques to answer questions for other people. I have also done the Process Work Intensive with Arnie
Mindell and the Shaman's Body somatic psychology he is bringing to the world. All of them involve types of journeying to ask questions and bring back information for healing. They were all powerful experiences for me and I came away with a deeper understanding
of what shamans do and how they get their information from non ordinary reality. My definition of a shaman from Michael Harner's training is simply "a person who travels into non ordinary reality realms and brings back information and healing to help other
people." I have used what I learned in these classes to help friends and students and it has been beneficial to them. I currently teach an Intuitive Painting Workshop that is very much like a shamanic journey using paint. It takes you into another realm and
gives you information for your authentic self and your life. All the information comes from you and doing the intuitive process painting not from me. I recognize the similarities and what is happening in the process because I have had this journeying experience
and can see how they are alike. I also see the powerful results. I think it would be very sad to miss out on these experience for our culture and not be able to use these processes for healing because we were not brought up in a traditional tribal culture.
We live in a modern culture that needs healing and some of these ancient practices work and are very powerful when applied. Not everyone is drawn to Shamanism and I think the energy and intent of the person has a lot to do with why they are and why they choose
to learn these ways. I call myself an Art Shaman because that is what I do. I use art to help people travel into deeper realms within themselves and bring back information and creativity they can use. I have been doing it for 10 years and have seen the powerful
results. I am one of those people you talk about that offer weekend workshops and most of my students are glad that I do. It is what I have chosen to do with my precious life and love doing it with all my being. I understand the concern about people misusing
the term Shamanism and wanting to protect the powerful native shamans dedicated to their people and have trained for years to know what they know. We do not do what they do but we use some shamanic practices to do what we do. A shaman is a person that has
studied and practices shamanic ways and uses them to help other people. One thing you learn really fast is that the spirits don't come to you because you demand them to, they are not at our beckon call but come because you have a genuine wish to know something
and they want to help. It is more about gratitude and humility than any kind of power. Carolyn Winkler-Art Shaman and Creative Spirit Guide
Angela Hartnett commented on 03-Oct-2011 05:54 PM
Linda, WOW!!! It is so good to see that you have taken the conversation and discomfort of a name (that someone called you) to a place of introspection. I have been taught that if someone tries to compliment you it is ok to just say "thank you!". Sometimes
it seems ridiculous...but it is what someone else thinks of you, after all, we cannot control what others think. In other words, it is OK to take the compliment, but maybe it is also OK afterwards to take a moment to share with them from your heart why that
title or name doesn't resonate for you (just as you did.) However, just because it's ok with you doesn't mean that title or name you like will resonate for others. To me this begs the question - what title are you comfortable with for yourself? ...
Anakule Fannin commented on 03-Oct-2011 06:11 PM
Hi Linda, I think you did a very nice job of talking about what being a shaman means to you. I agree with you completely. I also think that when folks use the term they are not being disrespectful....I hope. Different folks have different ideas about what
it means, we don't all agree, hopefully it is more a matter of semantics than folks thinking they can compare what they do to folks who have been in training within their own indigenous cultures for most of their lives. I facilitate shamanic breathwork but
I do not consider myself a shaman, I personally,reserve that term for a specific few...who are chosen and trained much like the Dalai Lama. Whatever people choose to call themselves is just that...what they choose to call themselves, not necessarily how we
or someone else would view them.
Anna Zach commented on 03-Oct-2011 11:29 PM
Well,I am observing and learning that shaman is "something"; that is "In" right now "in vogue" and what quite many people want to be ( or think they are ) and be it as fast as possible, probably overnight........
Anonymous commented on 03-Oct-2011 11:48 PM
That said I do have some comments. First of all in learning about my Russian ancestry I discovered that the word "shaman" originated with the native peoples of the South-Central region of Siberia and that the word is unknown in other cultures, or was until
the modern vernacular adopted it. That is probably why its current watered-down meaning is so vague. In learning about what a shaman is I have been able to look at my life's journey and put the puzzle pieces together into a process map consisting of a long
string of apparently synchronistic events that solidified my path, some of which were nothing short of miraculous. It seemed to have all started when I was 10 and was "visited" by lightening which went through my body and activated me, doiing no harm. A conscious
choice at the age of 11 to find what was beyond the ordinary, the mundane in life led me to renounce the outward trappings of religion and start a lifelong study of the truly spiritual and divine. Along my life's path I encountered teachers at every step of
the way from a Sufi Sheik to an Apache medicine man who taught martial arts. These people would simply show up in my town or a family member would introduce me. They didn't teach for money, what they offered was both free and priceless. I absorbed everything
that was useful, learning about healing with herbs and, later, with energy, how to defend myself, how to meditate and what it means to be empathetic and able to both read and feel others thoughts and feelings at the same time. I spend 10 years in a cult and
completely freed myself with the ability to see and understand how those things operate. I suffered all kinds of abuse both physical and emotional, spent 6 years in the forest communicating with animals and went through what is called "the dark night of the
soul" 8 years ago when my entire life fell apart and I thought I would not return. The long process of self healing was, in part, where I learned patience, Some of my teachers were also cruel, yet I recognized that I really needed to learn what they were teaching,
like how to become independent so I never had to suffer abuse again, self or otherwise. Along the way I felt some wisdom starting to slowly seep in. After a lifetime of having renounced my birth religion, I finally stopped throwing the proverbial baby out
with the bathwater and reached out to my ancestry, discovered that I carry the fully active DNA of my great grandmother who was a healer, a counselor and most certainly an empath in her little town in Poland. Was she a "shaman"? Probably. Am I one? Well, I
haven't gone through the very specific training of the Buryat Mongol people, yet I have logged the suffering and enlightenment to the extent that I have. I also don't hang out a shingle proclaiming to be anything or asking people to come and pay me a bunch
of money for my "shamanic" services..but I now go only where I am guided and do what work I can for healing, for people, animals, plants and the earth, and I discovered that I can be useful in that way. As I studied the Buryat culture I also discovered that
getting hit by lightening was a way that young people were chosen to be trained as I chuckled a bit. I used to call myself an "undercover shaman", but what I'm saying is that I'm a person who has learned how to be who I really am.
Anonymous commented on 04-Oct-2011 12:09 AM
..I also want to add something (to an already long post): the non-ordinary reality that Carolyn speaks about is something that I have lived with all of my life. I was happy when I started to learn a purpose for my existence in more than one world and I
learned how to journey to receive information for healing. I never played with it. I found that it was only powerful and only really worked when the intention was to help someone and in one case, to help myself. I had been dealing with a lot of stress in a
failing marriage and my heart needed some physical healing. I journeyed, and the language of the other world instructed me using the symbols of what I was able to easily recognize and told me to go out into the woods and find a particular plant and make a
tea out of it and drink it. I had never seen or heard of the plant before but I knew what it looked like, and fro the journey,also knew where to find it. The next day I walked out into the woods, which was only around 100 feet from my house, and walked until
I saw the red flower that identified this plant, harvested it and made the tea. My ailment went away after that. Funny thing was I never saw that plant there again.
Linda Neale commented on 04-Oct-2011 06:24 AM
This is a great discussion! To Angela's comment, it's good to know what people mean when they give you a title -- "shaman" may or may not be a compliment. When we first went to the Ecuadorian Amazon we were received by an entire village and five Kichwa
and Shwar shamans. One of them was 102 years old. We were told that they rarely got together, because they were concerned that other shamans might steal their power. Also, in some NW coast cultures, the shamans were blamed when something went seriously wrong
in the community, and were killed for it. I believe we all have access to the spiritual dimension of life. There are many forms of access -- shamanistic training is one way of access for some people, dreams are another. I have friends in the Native American
church and Santo Daime that use plant medicines as another form of access. But sometimes reality breaks through and we can realize that the spiritual dimension and physical reality are not that different. It takes practice and paying attention. Thank you for
your submissions, and I welcome more.
Whetstine Rebecca commented on 07-Oct-2011 04:15 AM
I've waited a bit to weigh in. I feel that we cannot have it both ways. We either respect the deepest meanings of these words and delve ourselves to a deeper alignment, or we bend them to mean what we would like them to mean. The trick is in researching
a little bit but not too much and experiencing as much as possible in a direct way... Reminds me of the dream work I did with Linda - you will notice that just in the moments you turn over to grab the notebook you are already analyzing, evaluating, symbolizing
and manipulating dream material before recording it. So it is in experiencing and learning... A few years ago at Sundance I received the pleasantly-grounding shock of truly KNOWING I'm a Common Woman. It was vastly comforting to know and accept this. Searchesfor
specialness would not take me to myself. It was like being the cork that fit the bottle comfily. Yet, in later times, as I am asked to do things for my women, my community, be it pack some rocks, pray in a lodge, put on a coyote pelt and let him go... I also
discover something else takes up when I squarely get out of the ego, the personal and all of that. So I am at that time requiring steady prayer to learn what my purpose is. And perhaps to learn if there is anything I need to know about my identity. Our interpretation
of “common” means without magic. Without power. I suspect that every person, if they were to stop trying to be a magical beast, would discover that common men and women were born special, but cannot be truly special until they accept being common. It is then
that the gifts begin to emerge in beauty. I ride herd on my desire to be special and unique, as I recognize the doings of the ego as manifested in western, individualistic society. It seems that it's not good enough for us to simply be who we are: a common
man or woman with a particular purpose in life and great gifts of creativity to share. We all want to channel Cleopatra or find that we died in a special holocaust, something dramatic or mythic to match the spirit voice pressing us ever more intensely to become
ourselves... Linda is the one who gently suggested that one keep one's eye on nature and the real world we are walking in. Clues are being delivered to us every day via this reality. So now, when I see slicky green tracers glowing across the stones as someone
has swiped the sweetgrass there - I trust it, because I did my time in the lodges without striving to "see something". As my awareness shifted, my relentless, cranky awareness, little this and thats became visible to me. My son and I heard the plants talking:
in racing, sibilant voices. I later transcribed a Martin High Bear Interview and there it was referenced. Yay! I waited years for that confirmation... Tzun Tzun Hsue gave me something valuable about the ego to help along the way.. If you say "I am a.....";
that is a signal that ego is involved. Our words can help us sort out our relationship to things. And the Father of our Dance, Joseph Chasinghishorse, had much to say this year about the need to pray to find our purpose. So it is: I carry stones for lodge.
I tend the fire. Etc... I am not a firetender or stone handler. That makes me a thing. And the sacreds then as things. AND: the ego squarely in charge of why I am doing it... Angela asks good questions. And, again, as a writer, I do believe in my soul that
words matter, Well, it is time to go to bed... There are many more layers going on than just the linear scratch line accomplished here for this moment....
Anonymous commented on 07-Oct-2011 01:23 PM
A subject worth pondering. And in truth, I am not comfortable with the fact that Shamanism can be described in words...for me what a Shaman has revealed to me has always been within the realm of experience, and very personal, not easily translated to others,
since they weren't the ones who came and asked for guidance. So I will spend my time describing what I have seen REAL Shaman do: healing, exorcizing, cleansing, removing all manor of mental patterning that is blocking a person's spiritual progress, spiritually
implanting direction or guidance, sometimes not to be understood in the moment, flushing out poisons of all kinds from Body/Mind/Spirit. A shaman works on a person at whatever level of dis=ease exists from a toothache to spiritual arrows that must be removed.
The rational person cannot"see"; a Shaman nor unless the Shaman allows, will they be able to communicate. Why? Because Shaman can see through any mask or action as a person approaches and simply becomes invisible energetically. So Shamanism is about ENERGY...lots
of energy...and levels of energetic consciousness...many levels, each that has its own teachings and accomplishments. What are the keys to this KINGDOM? A student must accomplish transparency *the absence of ego motivation and form* and simple humility that
supports one becoming a human being...think newborn, full of grace and light.. Key word, Innocence. That's why you see Shaman actively practicing in indigenous communities...and there they are what are described as URBAN SHAMAN who have adopted shamanistic
practices and offer them to the "unwashed"; me...before I sat before the real thing. SMILE...that is why I feel uncomfortable describing a practice that I have experienced but have not mastered.
Anonymous commented on 09-Oct-2011 01:30 AM
This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from a favorite teacher: "You haven't 'arrived' until you've stopped breathing for 20 minutes." Life is a path of learning; the best teachers are those who recognize themselves as perpetual students. The idea
of "mastery" for a shaman must be one that is constantly evolving.
Whetstine Rebecca commented on 06-Nov-2011 06:15 PM
Good one Lisa. I was just thinking that "mastery" is an illusion. Perhaps, to be more specific, ny thought is that we in this particular culture of linear experiencing deeply ensconced in living life in the self-as-object frame of reference, well, we think
"mastery" is an achieved state. People take classes and proclaim themselves Masters based on workshops taken by the level. I find that any time I profess *anything* I'm gifted with an immediate and crystal clear sacred ass-kicking. I am better off keeping
my mouth shut. See my comment above viz experiences about being a Common Woman and therein finding my place and my power. I confess to having difficulty hearing 20 year olds proudly assert that they are Reiki Masters because they took some classes and made
the steps. While the natural talent of loving openness cannot be denied as a power, I just cannot truly accept it as true. Wisdom is complex and some wisdom comes only from loss of innocence, trust, sense of safety: in the choosing to open again comes a depth
that cannot be had any other way. To illustrate my feeling about aggrandizement of the degrees of our many human gifts: I encountered a woman by surprise who IS born REIKI. She merely drew her hand across my aching coccyx, and I felt a sensation as velvet
drawing heavily! Her hand stirred THROUGH the torpid energy field, yet made if pull as heavy velvet. I'd never felt any such thing. She made no proclamations of titles - she was merely describing the work she does on musicians at the Grammys. While I am able
to feel the energy-flow changes that come from the laying on of hands of those who are focusing deep, powerful love upon me, they may not as they wish to be - as this woman clearly is - a standout REIKI-born, a portal in her hands. The proof was in the pure
functioning and not in the name. The fact that I had no idea she was coming in after it, so to speak when she "casually" touched that area that had me walking with one leg dragging that morning... well, made me a believer! This was an instructive experience.
As I remember this, it brings me back to the delineation of priest vs. shaman. The priestly caste is typically a rational, heirarchical, learned tradition. Priests are made. The shaman, on the other hand, is born thus, is recognized and evolves into the fullness
of inborn aspects. I suspect most of us are pursuing our priestly talents while overlooking our shamanic natures. :)... Was that contrarian enough for you? Thank you for the conversation!
Linda Neale commented on 07-Nov-2011 05:50 AM
Rod always says that we are put here to learn -- "learn to listen and listen to learn" -- and that when we stop learning, we're dead. So in that sense, there is no mastery, only learning.
Sharon Lookingwoman commented on 08-May-2012 11:06 AM
Thank you Linda for opening the door to this discussion. I too have been called a shaman. I was stunned by the remark but certainly had to consider their perception. Many have said I was born a shaman feel most of us have an an opportunity presented to
us perhaps we were open to it and perhaps we were afraid..whatever that may be...but I too have studied and work with the elders who patiently taught me..and I believe that they opened many doors for me to teach woman's ceremonies and work with the the Sacred
Teachings of the Medicine wheel and have learned to work with the earth healing energies and practiced working with the masters..I don't believe we ever quit learning. it seems that the more we learn the more doors open to us...each journey requires us to
open our minds to those ancient ones that are willing to teach us.. how fare we travel is our choice...but we are called to this work and its up to us to share it to all those who seek it.

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