ShamanI thought that this New York Times article about an adman who took up shaman healing on the side might be a wonderful opportunity for a blog post exploring some unanswered questions: Who exactly is a shaman? What does shaman healing entail?

However, a bit of research confirmed the obvious. Shamanism is broad, with a wide range of beliefs and practices. A shaman is someone who practices many things, including communication with the spirit world. But they exist in different forms all over the world from Siberia to Ecuador to Japan. So it seemed the best approach to get into this diverse tradition would be to interview a shaman about his or her particular beliefs and practices.

I hesitated to contact Itzhak Beery, the man profiled in the aforementioned report, because the media so often reaches out to these “mainstream” voices: the urban Westerner who has found spirituality outside of their upbringing. Although these experiences are important, I wonder if I should be looking instead for a different voice — someone brought up in the indigenous shaman tradition. I pose this question to you: What are some innovative ways in which we can enter into the world of shaman healing?

A shaman from West Sumatra, Indonesia. (photo: deepchi1/Flickr)

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I entered into the world of shaman healing without really knowing I was doing so. I attended a healing retreat (there really is no word for it, retreat comes about as close as possible, but make no mistake - that weekend was emotional and spiritual WORK) and the man leading the healings was trained in Brazil (again, trained isn't quite the right word, but...).

I come from a very traditional religious background (from the US) so I was a little nervous, not sure what to expect. But it was the most loving, caring environment I've ever found myself in. It was truly a sacred space where respect was of the utmost importance to everyone there. It was a deeply beautiful and moving experience for me where time stood still and connection was unlike anything I had ever experienced. My personal faith grew tremendously as a result.

So my answer to the question would be - engage with it. Of course do so cautiously; there are those who claim to be shamans who are really just power tripping and ego-maniacal (like faith practice or religion can have). But if an opportunity comes along to participate with someone you can trust, it's a profound experience.

was ayawasca involved. We are in Peru and have heard this to be a similar great expericne of transendence.

I'm so sorry this is so delayed.

No, the Ayawasca wasn't involved during my experience. However, the Diame is a part of the leader's ritual and church experience.

"What are some innovative ways in which we can enter into the world of shaman healing?"

There aren't. Don't try. Leave other cultures alone and find your own heritage.

"Shaman is a culturally specific term which a specific culture from the Mongolian Steppes and the Siberian Steppes use to describe their own unique religious functionaries and "technicians." It means specific and unique things to those specific and unique Peoples. It is not, and never was, and never will be, the catchall term that Americans of European origin have attempted to sodmomize and Borg it into being. The abuse of the word shaman, was and continues to be an act of cultural rape, it is a cultural hate crime. Using the term at all is ignorant, narcissistic, disrespectful, and oozes entitlement. We are not entitled to others' cultures, nor to cherry-pick them for the goodie we want. Stop using it.. Just stop.

Other cultures, including European ones, have different words and culturally specific descriptors. All are authentically indigenous, and none are fungible from the cultural whole; these religiosities are embedded in the culture, not plug-n-play as are Christianity and Islam. They flow organically from within the unique cultural matrices. Think of it this way, you and your liver cannot exist apart from each other - both die if they are separated. So too with cultures and their embedded religiosities. And likely, if your liver were transplanted into another person it would be rejected, without the application of powerful anti-rejection drugs which act to override the natural reaction of the body to eject what is not indigenous to that body. So too with cultures and their embedded religiosities.

You wanna enter into the world of "shamanic" healing. Fine. Go find your own ancestral culture. Meet it on it's own terms by acquiring the language and shedding yourself, forever and permanently, of your Western affectations & entitlement issues entirely, and live that way for the rest of your life.

Otherwise, just leave them alone in peace. We've nearly admired them to death. Literally. Stop. It.

Kathleen Blair
McMinnville, OR

I just recently watched a beautiful documentary called The Horse Boy in which a family with an autistic boy sets out to Mongolia to find healing for their son/family. It explores shamanism from the western perspective laced with hope and doubt. Maybe by watching it you'll have some further insight on how to approach shamanism in your program. I'd be stoked to learn more about it!

Thanks for the cinema tip!

It is compelling to chase after healing and cures, especially in exotic places; environments and cultures vastly different than your own; was the autistic child healed, or did the experience simply change the family's perspective on their son's inherent condition? Fascinating.

As my Anthropology and Mental Health MSc dissertation I did some research about psychiatrists working collaboratively with Ugandan traditional healing. If any thing it was a fascinating insight into a way of life and a way of thinking about psychosocial problems.

Jeremy, I'm intrigued. Could you share an example of a Ugandan healer's approach to a "psychosocial problem" — something you might remember?

While I, too, tend to be distrustful of urban, Anglo "shamans" who go about charging hefty fees for "healing ceremonies" and the like, I might also note that the Kathleen Blairs of the world carry their cynicism into cultural chauvinism. I have broadened and deepened my own spirituality (and ability to heal myself and others) by studying the shamanic traditions of my own three indigenous ethnicities: African (Ashante), Native American (Cherokee) and Celtic (Wicca). Ms. Blair's extreme cynicism belies the fact that there is power in all these specific traditions that transcends specificity; to say that they only work for those born to them trivializes their access to a spirit world that has no ethnicity.

These urban shamans offend me, in that it seems they are exploiting a trend. They don't know any more than I do, yet I would never presume to call myself a shaman and go around charging people for spiritual services. Yet there are individuals who provide a valuable service, such as Connie Grauds, a Minneapolis pharmacist who has studied for years with an Amazonian Indian shaman, and because of her "legit" credentials is able to bridge modern medicine and shamanic tradition. She is both a practitioner and a teacher. (Now she would be a dandy interview subject for you!) I am personally at a crossroads: If I have gifts that are useful to people, and know that what I have to offer is legitimately learned and earned, why should I not "hang out a shingle" and get paid for my services? (I have paid to attend workshops that I should have been teaching, myself).

I'll be watching with interest to see how you treat the subject; suggest Grauds over Beery.

I will look forward to your interview and and would also like to learn more about the different ways shamanic techniques are integrated into "modern" healing. It would be fascinating to hear an interview with a traditional, indigenous shaman. It would also be interesting to include interviews with people who are body work/energy practitioners and even psychotherapists who are integrating shamanic techniques into their practices. (I'm talking about the legitimate, even licensed practitioners - not snake oil salesperson.) There is a lot of good alternative healing go on "out there" that is as of yet unrecognized by the mainsream. It could benefit us all to bring more of it to light and, potentially, into research so that people seeking help will be better able to discern helpful healing techniques from "snake oil." That's my two cents. Thanks for listening.

I agree that the term, shaman, has been so watered down in the West, now meaning everything and nothing. The practices that have developed all over the world, arise appropriate for and specific to the cultures and places in which they function. I had an indigenous shaman partner, who used to say that it is being visionary is part of being human. It is an ordinary-extraordinary basic part of our lives that we can cultivate not to be impressive, special, or healers, but to be part of, as Thomas Berry said, "the dream of the Earth." To feel the joy of the emergence of the first pea shoots in the spring so intensely, we must dance, to hear the voices of our ancestors, the deep, genetic roots tapping in to the spring of all life flowing so strongly we have to sing, and to know that there are no alternative realities, just one, this one, and that it is a very very big universe in which we all participate at all times, in all spaces, and, somehow, it's all happening at once. Whatever techniques and ways we find to use our visionary natures, as artist, housewife, healer, plumber, dad, this is being fully human, indigenous to Earth. I look forward to the interview.