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The Path of the Shaman Then and Now

This article was written by Amber Wolfe on May 14, 2002
posted under Shamanism

I recently heard a wonderfully simple definition of the word shaman.

It was: "A shaman is one who helps people in their dealings with the other worlds."

These other worlds are the realms above, beyond, and deep within the experiences of our lives. These are the realms of spiritual, psychic vision and of pure, natural Earth energies. In shamanism, these worlds were traditionally represented as the upper world of the sky, or spirit levels, and the lower worlds of Earth and Nature. Humankind, along with all its symbols and traditions, was the middle world. Because of their abilities to alter their states of consciousness, the shamans were able to explore these worlds and bring back vision. The skill of the shamans was such that they could interpret the contents of their vision for the people.

One of the ancient symbols representing the shaman was that of the living tree. This symbolized the shaman as a rooted, living channel between sky and Earth, between Humankind and Spirit. Because of the shamans’ great connectedness to the chaotic energies of Nature and Spirit, they were the journey-makers between the worlds. Only the shaman was considered able to control the flow of energies in the other worlds. This ability came from the many lessons and experiences that were part and parcel of the shamanic path. These varied experiences gave the shaman the wisdom, perspective and objectivity to work with all the worlds of Nature, Spirit, and Humankind. The shaman was master of energies beyond the understanding of most other people.

Often, the methods for making these otherworldly journeys were kept secret and hidden from the people. The knowledge gained from the shaman’s journeys was rationed out to selected students and initiates who were considered ready for the experience of otherworldly journeys. The work and methods of the shaman were jealously guarded in some cultures, leaving no access to the knowledge for the people they served. However, there were some shamans who endeavored to do more than just interpret their own experiences in the journeys to other worlds. These shamans returned from their journeys with psychic methods, maps, and guidelines to help the people gain their own knowledge.

These shaman mapmakers had perhaps learned one of the deepest wisdoms of shamanism: There are no other journeys than the journey of the Self. Each person must make his (or her) own journey in this world or that within—the realms of everyday or within those of spiritual vision and Nature’s energies.

The shaman, as mapmaker, could assist the people with methods and point out hazards along the way. The shaman could even summon forth aspects of the people’s own spirit and power that they had not known existed. The shaman could evoke the highest abilities of the people and awaken them to their own spiritual quests. In doing this, the shaman truly helped the people deal directly with the other worlds of Self, Nature, and Spirit.

In ancient times, the challenges to survival were so harsh that most people were unable to pursue any but the most basic life paths necessary to live. Very few people had the time or inclination to make explorative journeys into Spirit or to consider the subtle balance of energies in Nature. Nature was sometimes adversary, sometimes nurturer; always Mother—Core of all life. Primitive people looked to the shaman to interpret the surrounding mysteries of Nature and to communicate with the realms of Spirit. The shamans were protected, honored, and often feared by the people for the powers they held.

While the role of the shaman was central to the life of the people, the presence of the shaman was often quite separate from them. The shaman had abilities and wisdom that clearly set them apart. Additionally, the levels of openness and attunement to the energies of Nature that the shaman had to maintain, made it difficult to live among others. One meaning of the word shaman is "ascetic." Ascetic means someone who chooses to live a life of self-denial and isolation, generally in the service of a higher cause.

At times, the isolation of the shaman required another person of wisdom to act as an intermediary between the shaman and the people. Most often this was a medicine person whose knowledge and experience closely paralleled those of the shaman. While the shaman some- times chose to live apart from the people, the medicine person lived within the center of the community. Indeed, the medicine person was seen as the core of the tribe or community. Although the shaman was an object of awe and sometimes fear, the medicine person was a comfortable, familiar part of the community.

Many traditions held that the shamans had suffered self-inflicted mortal wounds, or had been devoured by the spirits and energies of the other worlds. The shaman had endured these traumas, returning wounded, yet self-healed. These experiences gave the shaman the great compassion and sensitivity of a wounded healer. The shaman had experienced the horrors and healings of the other world. As wounded healer, the shaman dwelt between the worlds, ready to travel into Spirit at all times to facilitate healing for another person.

The shamans knew that their function was to remain as a clear connection to the other worlds and as a centering force for the chaotic energies surrounding Humankind. The shaman’s task was to stay centered in self-power, uninfluenced by the paths of others. Differences in traditions and philosophies meant nothing to the shamans. The energies they held, and the levels they dwelt upon, were beyond division. While the shamans reflected the myth and tradition of their people, their not ruled by these. The shaman held the boundless, purest forms of Nature energy. When shamans healed someone, they dealt directly with the necessary energies. They pulled these through themselves and through the patient. The healing process was, and is, completely cooperative and interactive. To ignore the contribution of either is to miss the beautiful dance of shamanic healing.

The shaman knew that just as all paths are self-paths, all healings are self-healings. In the presence of the shaman, the person could often release the blocks and doubts that prevented him or her from reaching the deepest levels of wisdom and self-healing. Most people, particularly in ancient times, considered the healings to be only the magical actions of the shaman. When patients had other world experiences during a shamanic healing, they most probably did not consider them to be self experiences. More likely, they considered them to be the magic of the shaman.

All of the tools, props, and ornamentations of the shamans did little to convince the person of their own self-healing abilities. However, what these did was to open the levels of faith needed to let healing energies through. Simply put, faith-healing is self-healing. The shaman, as wounded healer, was, and is, most purely a self-healer. The shamans’ tools were the symbolic connections they had made to the deep healing levels and to Nature energies. These tools were their totems and sacred helpers. They were the link to the powers and worlds beyond form. They mapped the way and enabled the shaman to meet, Spirit to Spirit, with the person being healed. With such a meeting of Spirits, the possibilities for healing and transformations were limitless.

They still are.

As we have evolved in modern times, we have become much more conscious of our incredible self-healing abilities. We have begun to access the vast amounts of knowledge stored in the other world aspects of our Self. Like the shaman of old, we have become aware of ourselves at the center of a great cosmic dance of worlds, energies and Spirit in Nature. Shamanism, as we explore it today, maps the way to the worlds of Nature in order to help us grow and expand our own vision.

We all have the capacities to follow a shamanic path. In our increasing attunement to Earth wisdom, we have all become like shamans mapping our journeys and our relationships with Nature. Upper, lower, middle, and Spirit worlds blend as we dance with Nature and with our Self. Our expanding awareness and relationships to the worlds of minerals, plants, humans, and animals have become central to our greater communion with Nature.

As we move closer to the center of our Self, we see that all of the wisdom and experiences of our lives have been like a great shamanic journey. Whatever traditions or philosophies we have explored before beginning our study of shamanism may be seen as part of the journey, or path, of the Self. The path of the shaman is truly the path of the Self.

In the reemergence of interest in shamanism, we can all learn from the wisdom and energies of Nature. The abilities shown by the shamans can be, and are being, awakened in all of us who wish to tap directly into the heart of Earth wisdom and spiritual vision. We are ready for a more significant communion with the other world aspects of our Self and with the purest energy of Nature. The shamanic path gives us this clearly by demonstrating the remarkable gifts of power and attunement that we may attain, for the good of all.

The path of the shaman is a constantly moving, changing dance of life. Everything in the shaman’s universe has energy, vibration, consciousness, and power of its own. This view of the universe is called animism. The quest of the shamanic path is to achieve attunement with these vibrations and familiarity with Spirit. This level of attunement and familiarity represents the attainment of power for the shaman.

Even in the attainment of this power and the mastery of these vibrations and energies, the shaman knows that power is a gift. Whatever has or has not been done in pursuit of this power, it is ultimately a gift of Spirit to Self. Knowing this, shamans can allow the energies of all the worlds about them to flow through. The shaman stands at the center of all the worlds, balanced and in harmony with life. This is the heart of the Shamanic Path.

I’ve have discussed the traditional views of the shaman and the shamanic path for several reasons. One reason is that the reemergence of interest in shamanism has made the word shaman far more common than the person of the shaman, who is always a rare, special individual. Another reason is that many of the historical hallmarks of the shaman can provide guidelines for us in present times. Finally, by understanding how the shaman has been viewed in ancient times, we can begin to see how far we have come in both our present view of shamanism and our self-view as well.

When we understand the heart of the shamanic path, we may be better able to see how we can incorporate shamanic methods and experiences into our own self-development. An added benefit is that our development parallels the development of the planet. As we grow in strength and power, we empower the planet and all who live here. Our attunement to the deep shamanic energies of Nature heals and nurtures Nature itself.

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