As human brains became more developed in our ancient past, we found ourselves wondering what else there was to the universe and physical reality, and what made everything work. We had lots of questions, and some people, just like today, seemed to be born with wisdom, knowledge, and abilities that can’t be explained by the physical world alone. While there are plenty of jokes about prostitution being the world’s oldest profession, there is evidence that it was Shamanism instead, showing that we have a deeper drive for spiritual fulfilment than for earthly pleasure.
Shamans were the first spiritual guides, and they continue to fill that role today. Many indigenous cultures have shamans, and it is more like a calling than a job title. They feel a connection to the subtle energies of the universe in ways that other people normally don’t. Shamans often use altered states of consciousness to explore their connection with nature and communicate with spirits. These altered states can be achieved with entheogenic chemicals, but it’s more common to use techniques like drumming, singing, and dance, as well as deep meditation to experience the connection to the astral realm.
Shamans are similar to Buddhist monks in that they seek higher states of consciousness. Shamanic practices also parallel the Qabalah and other western esoteric rituals in that the goal is a state of “gnosis,” or knowing. All of these practices encourage the adept to enter the astral, or imaginal realm, which is where changes to perception and the subconscious mind can take place.
How Shamanism started
It’s believed that Shamanistic practices began over 30,000 years ago, and most likely originates in Siberia. The word “Shaman” translates to One Who Knows in the language of the Manchu-Tungus people who inhabit this region. Shamanism can’t really be called a religion since shamans don’t call upon any gods or deities.
Instead, they speak to spirits of their ancestors, spirits of the land, and other subtle forms of energy that flow through everything that exists. There was no formalized beginning of shamanism. Instead, it spontaneously sprung up in various parts of the world in surprisingly similar forms around the same time. Shamanism was often practiced alongside animism, which focuses on communication with the spirits of non-human animals both living and dead.
Who practices Shamanism today?
One does not need to be a Shaman to practice Shamanism. Shamanistic practices include working with the spirits of ancestors who have gone beyond their physical bodies, and communicating with the energy that infuses all things, like the land, the water, trees, and even rocks, as well as animals. It includes a deep respect and reverence for all of creation, and some people who are drawn to it have a history of activism to protect the environment.
There are indigenous tribes all over the globe who continue to practice their traditional shamanistic practices today, and in many places these practices are protected from the persecution that they faced under harsher religious or governmental control, though that does still occur in some of the more oppressed areas. South America and Siberia continue to have strong ties to their Shaman roots, as well as Canada, Scandinavia, Mongolia, and Tibet.
There is an unfortunate trend towards tourist shamanism, where a person sets themselves up with psychoactive compounds and sells “experiences” or “retreats” to travelers. These people are called charlatans and they don’t deserve your money. You can tell a real shaman by whether or not they tell you they are: if they have to tell you, then they aren’t. Real shamans don’t advertise, and aren’t new-age-y.
They may be seen as tribal healers, or guides, or other title granted by the community they are a part of, and you definitely won’t find them by an internet search for “local shaman.” This also means that unless you are already being called a shaman by your tribe, it would be cultural appropriation to take that title for yourself. However, this should not deter you from following the ways of the shaman if you feel called to do so.
Shamanism for beginners
As a beginner learning about Shamanism, you can think about it as working in the astral plane. It’s a different way to speak about getting to the same place, and works well for people who feel more connected to nature and the Earth. Consider the layers of energetic expressions: first we have the physical or material plane, which then moves to the etheric or subtle energy body, which leads to the astral realm. The astral is anything that happens in an altered state of consciousness, including your imagination, dreaming, having visions, or the trips from psychoactive compounds like entheogens. Many people who experience altered states of consciousness describe strikingly similar environments and beings that they interact with. While some scientists may argue that this is due to similar structures in the brain and the interaction of certain neurotransmitters, we can’t rule out the possibility that these are different levels of existence that can only be reached by shifting the way our consciousness processes information.
Some of the methods that shamans use to get into these altered states are able to be used by any practitioner, yourself included. Rhythmic or trance drumming can quickly change the way your brain perceives reality, and adding vocalizations in the form of chanting or singing can dramatically increase this effect. Dancing is also a way to get into altered states, and meditation is a reliable method as well. Meditation may be the most effective method since it is quiet and takes no extra space, meaning you can practice it without angering your downstairs neighbors.
Shamans and Soul Retrieval
Soul retrieval, or soul healing, is a big topic among people who are seeking to heal from trauma and improve their well-being. Your soul cannot truly ever be broken, damaged, or lost. It is that which animates the body. However, parts of your etheric body, your subtle energy body, can be drained, harmed, or given away. Our energy gets tangled up with other people on a daily basis, and never more so than with those who have caused us misery. The first step to a healing process is exiting the situation or relationship that is causing you to suffer. Adopting shamanistic practices can help you to repair and reclaim this energy, since you will be focused on the energetic connections between you and everything else that exists. This will allow you to introspectively understand what your energetic ties are, and how to break them if necessary to help yourself feel more whole and safe. It’s a wise ideal to have a guide along this process, but no one can do it for you. A shaman or other spiritual teacher can work with you on this, but understand that it’s a process that happens inside of you, and you’ll be working on the astral or imaginal realm to achieve your goal.
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