WHAT A SHAMAN KNOWS

NORMAN W WILSON, PH.D.

I approach the subject of shaman, shamanism, and shamanic powers with considerable consternation. And I do so despite the fact that the word shaman has become a part of American landscape. I use the word(s) because of its recognition and ask that those who have objections to accept a single fact: I mean no disrespect. Likewise the term ‘medicine man’ is not a term used in Native American Culture(s).

The word shaman as I understand it, is an import from the Siberian Tungus [Evenks]with some hint of a Sanskrit connection.  Literally, it means one who knows—a Promethean quality.  The question that needs to be asked is a simple one: What does the shaman know?

To answer that question we first have to accept the notion a shaman operates with a basic premise: The world is composed of invisible forces and/or spirits that affect all life—human and non-human.  Within this premise lies the notion that plants, rivers, lakes, oceans, trees, and rocks are all imbued with their own special qualities. Science tells us that there are invisible forces; invisible to the naked eye so the idea that certain individuals can tune into those forces should not be shocking.

Because the shaman has this ability to tap into this ‘universal consciousness’, he or she is called upon to function as a healer. Here the shaman’s role is to heal the community; to bring harmony to man and nature, as well as to individuals.  To do this, the shaman retires into an altered state of consciousness.

Some cultures as well as individuals use a variety of drugs to induce the shamanic state. I am an opponent to such use. Grave permanent dangers lurk for the novice. On that basis, there will be no specific hallucinogenic drugs mentioned.  The shamanic state may be produced by the use of sounds. Drums have been used for eons. Flutes and humming have also been used. Today there are tapes, CD and videos for altering the state of consciousness.  The use of OHM in meditation is a popular choice. Notice I have chosen not to use the word trance. It suggests a lack of control.

The seeker should go into a shamanic state with just a single question in mind; not a shopping list. Disappointment will be the end result.

There are, according to some authorities, three levels in a shamanic world. These levels have no connection to religions. The first level of the shamanic journey is called the underworld. At this level emotions, memories, and psychic healing take place. Sometimes, one’s power animal is encountered here.  Generally speaking, access to the underworld is achieved by going through a tunnel (as Enkidu in the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh), or flowing down an underground river. Other times, one may achieve this level through a sudden flash or a rappelling.  The second level is the middle world. Here plant spirits, spells, curses and ghosts are located just outside of reality. And please, don’t ask for a definition of reality. (Note the popular television series, Ghost Whisperer takes place at this level.)  The upper world is the third level of the shamanic world. Here spiritual teachers and Jung’s archetypes exist. The teacher arrives unbidden quite often and at first experience,  and at first may not be recognized.

The third level may be obtained through extensive meditation and the production of altered states. Native American musicians David and Steven Gordon, R. Carlos Nakai, the Native Flute Ensemble or Scott August certainly would help set the tone for such meditation. Listen and let their song carry you. The harmonics are surreal.

One does not just become a shaman. One may achieve shamanhood through transmission. That is, one may inherit that ability. Second, one may experience a ‘calling’ or what is sometimes called spontaneous selection and finally, one may personally quest it. In this case, expect long, long periods of training. One of my former students had been in training by his grandmother since he had reached puberty. He hoped to be ready by the time he was in his mid-twenties.  It’s not a semester course or a week-end seminar at a resort.

Back to my question: What does a shaman know? Generally, the shaman is a sensitive and knows, intuitively, what someone else is feeling.  He or she has a substantial background in organic plants and herbs used for  healing, and certainly he or she knows how to pray to whatever power there is. A shaman tunes in to the psychic and emotional needs of a person and leads that person’s  energies to help heal.

A cautionary word is essential in view of the recent tragedy in Arizona. Beware of the self-proclaimed. And I’m not implying the person(s) responsible for that sweat lodge experience is, but  it’s always a good policy to know your guide. The shamanic state is not for everyone. Massive spiritual cleansing and renewal is not for everyone.  A shaman by whatever name you wish to call him or her is not a catholicon. It that were true, then we would be living in harmony and peace and be disease free.

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