Anyone who is
new to shamanism might be struck by your very ”normal” clear
appearance. What is a shaman?
The stereotype of the shaman is very misleading. Most people think of
shamans as being very intense and wild looking people, but in fact shamans
are ordinary members of society – if there is such a thing! The
way they differ from other members of society is that they have a direct
access to the ”other world”, the spirit world or non-ordinary
reality, and they know how to call the spirits to them or how to journey
to spirits, and how to interact with the spirits and work together with
In our conventional culture we are used to petitioning The Spirit in
prayer, not ”The Spirits”. For many hundreds of years people
have been excommunicated and persecuted for speaking about and working
with spirits as opposed to ”The Spirit”. What is the relation
between ”The Spirit” and ”The Spirits”
of the shaman?
I think that the reason why people were excommunicated was that at some
point in its history the church demanded a monopoly of religious experience,
and certain religious experiences were authorized and others were not.
Then of course the authorized ones had to be experienced by authorized
people. Joan of Arc was unauthorized, even though she had authorized
experiences, and she ended up being burned at the stake, as did a lot
of shamans and other people who worked directly with the spirit world.
This was a political decision made by the Church Fathers. Up until that
point other religions had been tolerated. I would say that religious
experiences in Christianity and shamanism are basically the same, and
although shamanism is not a religion in and of itself the practice leads
very easily and quickly to deep and powerful religious experiences.
This is probably one of the reasons why shamanism has always made missionaries
very uncomfortable – very often the people they are going out
to missionize have had much deeper religious experiences than they have
is the shaman’s experience?
There can be so many different experiences. The shaman’s work
is very goal-orientated; she always has a mission when she is making
her contact with the spirit world, and the intensity of her experience
relates to the seriousness of the mission. Shamans are primarily healers
and very often their purpose in contacting the spirit world is to bring
spirit power back to somebody who is in trouble in some way, with physical
or psychological illness, or who needs some other help, and sometimes
the shaman is contacting the spirit world for his own benefit or necessity.
The shaman generally has spirit helpers of various sorts, among them
animal spirit helpers – spirit helpers who appear in the form
of guise of animals – as well as human spirit helpers, and spirit
helpers from the plant kingdom. These different helpers have different
ways of relating to the shaman.
The most dramatic experience of the shaman, and the one that we Westerners
hear the most about, are the initiatory experiences where the shaman
is first contacted by the spirits, and often at this point the spirits
tell the person that she is going to be a shaman. In traditional cultures
this is a very, very grave and great and wonderful and terrible responsibility,
so not everybody wants to be a shaman and often people try to avoid
it. If the spirits are firm enough they will proceed to initiate the
person on the spot and the person won’t have any choice about
The experiences they have would be considered to be those of a madman
by modern day terminology, for example, a psychotic or schizophrenic
episode. The famous example that comes to my mind of a similar initiation
is what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus, which is why I
say that the religious experiences are very similar in quality, although
they might be different in detail.
What are The Spirits? What is the Spirit World? One significant contrast
between shamanism and traditions such as Christianity seems to be that
in the latter their mystical experiences are predominantly of light,
and that is not the case in shamanism. You talk about animals and rocks,
but I don’t know that these are ever part of numinous experience
I think of spirits as being bundles of the energy of the universe
which present themselves to us in ways that we can understand if we
try to. This is why we are often presented with creatures which we know,
figures which will not alarm us too much.
One thing I do with people who come to learn shamanism is to send them
to meet their spirit teacher. Often the person they meet glows, sometimes
really radiates very powerfully, and also very often the first times
they meet, their teacher will have a human form but they won’t
be able to see her or his face – instead it is a glow or a radiation
coming from where the face would ordinarily be. It is a very powerful
experience to meet somebody like that, and just meeting the teacher
can have a life-changing effect on someone. This is again why I come
to think of St Paul on the road to Damascus because that is certainly
what happened with him.
Who is this ”teacher”?
When one goes out to contact the spirit world one has a mission, and
this is a very active form of praying. You are actually sending a part
of your soul out into the universe looking for someone who is going
to help you. It is said ”Seek and ye shall find”, and the
more actively you seek the more you find – some people find more
than they bargained for – so I always want people to be very careful
about what they ask for. It has been my experience that everybody wants
to change so long as they don’t have to change. What happens is
that the universe hears prayers and these are answered, and if you go
out looking for somebody to teach you there is a chance that you are
going to find that person, even if that person is in the spirit, not
the physical, world. This teacher will be one of these bundles of energy
given or loaned by the universe.
these bundles of energy, are they beings who are dedicated to helping
those of us on this plane who pray or are we in some way creators of
these bundles of energy through our prayer?
This is a matter of great debate and sometimes people are incredibly
surprised about who it is who comes to meet them to be their teacher.
I remember some years ago I was working with a Danish man who was sick
and tired of the fact that a lot of people were importing North American
spirituality to Denmark. He rightly pointed out that we have our own
spiritual tradition which goes way back before Christianity, even before
the Vikings, and that when he went on his journey he wanted to have
somebody who is definitely Scandinavian, and certainly did not want
a buffalo as his power animal. The spirits like to have a little joke
sometimes, and he got this elderly native North American with a beautiful
feathered head-dress walking beside a buffalo. The man was furious:
he was not going to continue with shamanism! A few weeks later he couldn’t
help but laugh at himself, but at that moment he was doing a very good
job of taking himself very seriously.
Is the appearance that we perceive something of our creation, while
the essence of the spirit is somehow independent of the appearance?
I would say that it has nothing to do with our creation. Often the spirits
present themselves to us in a way that will be a teaching in itself.
I was once teaching in Finland and a young woman on the course was an
active feminist, a wonderful person who has written several books and
done a lot of really good work. During the course I sent everybody to
meet their teacher, and when she came back from her journey she was
moved to tears and eventually told us the story of her journey: she
had a very deep personal question and when she was brought to her teacher
she saw an elderly man, slightly bald with long white beard, wearing
white robes and sitting on a marble throne. She was absolutely incensed
and said: ”What are you doing on my journey? I am not going to
ask him my question!” Then there was a powerful explosion and
when the smoke cleared there was a bent old hag cackling at her and
saying, ”Does this suit you better deary?” At that point
she just broke down and asked her question saying ”Please forgive
me”. It made a very deep impression on her and I don’t think
that was part of her creation.
Often on their early journeys people do get very wonderful, majestic,
powerful ”power animals” like bears, lions and eagles as
spirit helpers, but if the person continues with the shamanic work they
often start getting other animal helpers who are less obviously awe-inspiring.
I think this is because before people start this work they have often
been disempowered, and in the beginning they need to have power through
these very huge, powerful creatures. Then as time goes on they find
themselves riding on the back of a swallow and feeling just as exhilarated
and ecstatic with that as they did when they were riding on the back
of an eagle.
What is it that the power animal brings to this shamanic journey?
Why an animal, why not a teacher in human form?
One aspect is the connection to nature: especially in hunting and gathering
societies, people were very aware of how dependant they were on the
animal world, but since they started domesticating plants and animals
humans have felt themselves apart and different from the rest of the
animal world, and the fact that animals come to them on their shamanic
journeys brings them closer. Another aspect is that humans have always
recognized that animals have a certain power that they have lost through
their humanity, what I would call a raw energy, a nature energy, and
the more civilized we become, the further away we get from it until
for some people today just the idea of dirtying their hands is repulsive
An essential aspect of Shamanism is that we are all connected. When
I say ”we”, I am not just including human beings, but human
beings being connected to ants, to creatures at the bottom of the sea,
to the stars, to dirt – to everything. This is an essential concept
in shamanism, as it is in Buddhism, and this connection is cemented
when people become interdependent with members of the animal kingdom,
albeit in the spirit world.
also think that in almost all traditions there are folk stories about
times when animals and people could talk together. I think of several
amusing Sufi stories, and stories from North America, Siberia and Africa
also, animals taking off their animal costume or skin and being human
underneath. This is also a very interesting concept which makes us closer
and more interactive with the animal kingdom.
This contrasts with the sentence in the Bible about man having dominion
This is probably one of the most unfortunate quotations from the Bible
because this attitude has led us directly to the brink of the ecological
disaster where we stand now, if we haven’t already fallen over
it. This idea that human beings are the crown of creation, instead of
that the whole creation is the crown, is indeed very unfortunate. On
the other hand there is a very nice animistic quote from the book of
ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee:
and the fowls of the air and they shall tell thee:
Or speak with the earth and it shall teach thee:
and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.
In fact also in Christianity the concept of power animals is not unknown:
the evangelical apostles have their own animal spirit-helpers, for example,
Saint Mark had a wingéd Lion.
We have institutionalized the divide between human and animal to
such an extent that claims of communication between people and animals
is scientifically regarded as a delusion, even a sign of the degradation
of the rational human mind. So shamanism is retrieving something very
important for humanity.
I feel so. However I think that what you describe is only a veneer.
Most people have a very close and loving relationship with their animals;
they talk to their dogs. I think that animism, the belief that all things
have a soul, is just under the surface for many people. I remember when
I was in school somebody said that they loved their dog, and the teacher
gave us an eight minute lecture on how it was not possible to love a
dog, not to love anything else, such as food or trees; we could only
love another human being. This is a very limited point of view. But
when you get away from the organization of religion, into the mysticism
of any religion then it is clear that once you know what love is, it
is possible to love anything – and it becomes more and more necessary,
and more natural.
Many people today, including philosophers, are recognizing the fallacies
of the so-called ”logic” of western philosophy. Now there
is the development of the science of consciousness in which scientists
from many different branches, including mathematicians and neurologists,
are examining consciousness to see if science can come to grips with
it, because consciousness is at the centre of humanity and yet science
has a very difficult time saying anything about it because it cannot
really be measured.
Shamanism is a very direct way of getting into consciousness because
consciousness is not just something that we are carrying around in our
head; it has to do with this fact that we are all connected, and perhaps
this thing that we call consciousness is one of the ways in which we
all are connected. The way the shaman works, the way the shaman gets
to the spirit world, is by changing the state of consciousness: the
shaman enters another awareness, is able to make a shift – it
is not that the shaman goes into a trance, or looses consciousness –
but she makes a shift in her consciousness and by doing this she is
able to come in contact with the spirit world.
in coming in contact with the spirit world, as you said, it is part
of the soul of the shaman connecting with the soul of all other beings;
in the shamanic view all beings are animate - even a toaster.
this the shaman can come in contact with the anima of whatever she chooses,
with the spirit of all things. One way in which the shaman works in
healing is by trying to get in contact with the spirit of the illness.
If a person is ill because of an unwanted spirit intrusion then the
shaman will try to get in contact with the spirit of that illness and
try to get it to leave.
This shamanic way of working with the interrelationship of the whole
universe has tremendous implications for everything in our life.
When you start to think in an animistic way, you begin to have a much
deeper respect for everything. In the beginning it can be very difficult
because the secret is that there is no life without death. Human beings
cannot find anything to eat unless they are willing to kill something.
This can seem overwhelming. You might feel very bad about pulling a
carrot up out of the ground and eating it, or even killing an animal
and eating it. But if these acts are done with respect and recognition
of the fact that some day you are going to be feeding plants and animals
with your own body, this puts a different perspective on it. The alternative,
which we usually do, is to put ourselves in the centre of the universe
and take ourselves out of the cycle of creation.
Traditional peoples, and even our own grandparents, had ceremonies thanking
the universe for the food they were getting. Today many people say grace
at table, but I don’t know how much they really put into it; when
I was a kid it always seemed rather automatic. But I have experienced
people giving thanks for the food in such a way that it was a deeply
moving experience. Hunting societies people would thank the animals
after they had killed them and very often there was a mystical relationship
between the hunter and the hunted. In many different cultures there
were special people who could call the game so that it would be killed,
and powerful hunters were recognized as being also very spiritual people.
After they had killed the animal there were certain rituals they had
to go through to thank it and in many different societies there were
special ways of taking care of the bones of the animal afterwards. When
I was living in Greenland it was out of the question to wash a fish
at the place where you had caught it. In other cultures one would take
the bones of an animal and put them up in trees so that they would not
be disturbed by other carnivorous animals. This brings to mind the story
of the Nordic god Thor who would eat his goats every night but very
carefully not break any of the bones, and the goats were there again
the next morning. This is the remnant of the hunting traditions of Scandinavia
and shows the respect that we can start to have for everything. If people
start practising shamanism it makes it very difficult to accept the
throw-away aspect of culture which we live in seriously. The implications
are very far-reaching.
I feel that animism is the spiritual base of the ecological movement.
It is the recognition that the rain forests have as much right to exist
as we do, not only from our point of view but from the point of view
of the entire planet – the rain forests are trying to exist just
as we are – and also from the point of view of the individual
trees in the rain forest. But when you start pulling things out of the
Great Cycle then you start to get imbalance.
It is a view which embraces the beingness of all beings, a shift
from the human-centred view.
It certainly is but again coming back to what we were talking about
in the very beginning I think that the essence of any religious experience
is a shift from the anthropocentric point of view, the human-centred
point of view, to a universal point of view. We are interdependent,
all of us, and when I say ”us”, I am talking about the trees
and the rocks and the seas as well as the two-legged people.
You have been speaking about ”power animals”. I’d
like to ask about power. We use external power so much on each other,
but generally we seem frightened of the word ”power”, frightened
of inner power, and the word has many negative connotations. It seems
that shamanism is really honouring the nature of power.
It does. The concept of power is very central to shamanism. I spend
a lot of time thinking about this one word ”power”. A lot
of people are afraid of this word because their power has been taken
away from them, and they experience themselves as powerless. When they
think of power, people tend to think of armies, of strong men who beat
up women and children who are physically weaker; they think of the power
of money which they may not have. On the other hand there are other
kinds of power: in Danish and German there are two words for power.
One is Macht which closely translates to ”might”, and the
other is Kraft which translates more as ”energy”.
think this distinction is very important. ”Might” is used
to control, whereas energy is used to lift up or to illuminate. Only
this morning I realized that the spiritual root of ”might”
is fear. When people are afraid, they need to control; the best way
to control is to take away other people’s power, and the power
that they often take away is people’s energy, be it their physical
or their spiritual energy. The spiritual root of ”energy”
however is probably love. When you look at the entire universe it is
filled with power, but for me this power, way out to the very edges
of the universe, if there are any edges, is energy.
There is great hope in this, that human beings may become able to
distinguish between ”power” and ”might”.
I think one of the most wonderful things about it is that when you see
people who find it necessary to exert power over other people, it is
much easier to have compassion for them, because you know where the
root of their power is.
re-published here with the kind permission of Sarida Brown, originally
appeared in Caduceus Issue 37 Autumn 1997.
Caduceus is the leading British journal exploring alternative spirituality,
healing, and life-ways. You can visit their website at www.caduceus.info
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