21st Century Shamanism

My approach to health and healing is first of all to meet to my clients where they are and to inquire about where they want to go.  By this I mean that the clients set goals for our work together and that I am their guide:  it’s why I consider my services educational, including hypnotherapy and the use of shamanic techniques such as soul retrieval.  The issue for the client is one of commitment to change and growth. The issue for me is always one of integrity:  how do I unify everything I trust to be true into my work, guiding my clients to a place where dreams have value, where trance is a form of focused attention, where imagination is a tool for spiritual development. 

21st Century Shamanism is what I’ve been calling my practice for the past thirty years.  Simply stated, this is a name for all of the tools at my disposal.  These includes modalities that reach back millennia to the spirit journeys of our ancient ancestors, but also, as a 21st Century man myself,  I rely on my experience across the grid of time and space to find the meeting place that coordinates with where my clients currently stand.  We consider where we want to go from there, and what the means of transportation might be.  If you want to learn about archaic shamanism, drumming and out-of-body journeying, fine, I’ll teach you that;  if you want to plum the fantasies you’ve been having since you saw that recent movie about alternative universes, we’ll go there.  

I’ve never been a “one size fits all” practitioner, and this is a chief reason I don’t make generic hypnosis tapes or shamanic journey tapes, but rather, in following the model of Milton Erickson, MD—the master of hypnotherapy—I establish rapport with my clients first of all, learning from them how they represent to themselves their problems, and what resources they possess for positive outcomes. If we were members of the same traditional culture, we would share the same cosmology and many of the same assumptions about what it means to be human and what the human place is in the wider world—however, in the 21st Century, things are different.  

Modern medicine certainly has a model for what the human body is and what frailties it is subject to.  We’ve all grown up with that.  Some of the time—or a lot of the time, depending on how you look at it—this medical model works well enough: antibiotics and surgical interventions are two of its finest applications.  But there are limitations: the modern medical model doesn’t necessarily help people to guard their health or to do what shamanism calls accumulating “personal power.  You could think of this accumulation of power as preventative medicine, and naturally, part of that is making healthy life choices, but shamanism also addresses other dimensions of human experience besides the well being of your physical organism.  It places great value on some less obvious areas of life, because it’s assumption is that there are forces or energies or “spirits” also involved with our problems that might not immediately be apparent.  Something as common as a headache, for example, could be a clue to failed relationship in your past that was never resolved. 

Modern day thinking about psychosomatic symptomology doesn’t really get to the point I’m making here:  there’s a spiritual dimension to shamanism that modern medicine is very wary about even mentioning.  (Indeed, the word “spiritual” is out of bounds for most medical doctors!)  And yet many people have an intuition that forces more subtle than pathogens or self-defeating habits are active behind the scenes of chronic distress, failed relationships, or loss of life purpose.  This recognizable “hunch” about the invisible dimension of human experience has existed throughout the ages and continues today alongside empirically based scientific methodologies,  the so-called “gold standard” of modern medicine.  Don’t get me wrong:  I take antibiotics when I need them,  and I have recently had a couple of necessary surgeries whose outcomes have had huge positive impacts on my life. In this respect, let me quote the Native American shaman Rolling Thunder, who, when talking about traditional medicine ways in relation to modern medicine said, “We’re for whatever does good.”

But to return to my critique about what’s missing from so many contemporary doctor-patient transactions:  they are more and more impersonal;  as efficient as the tools of diagnosis have become, the visit to the doctor feels more and more rushed;  as monumental as the effects of certain drugs are, the less time there is given to understanding both their beneficial and negative side effects in individual cases, not to mention broad scandals that sometimes emerge after drug approval and widespread prescription.  Once again let me make it perfectly clear that I am not in opposition to the modern medical practices or in any way offering 21 st Century shamanism as default alternative.  I am an educator. I believe that adults can make informed decisions for themselves in all areas of their lives.  

Is it any wonder people try to do their own research on the internet and come into doctors’ offices with their own diagnoses—often incorrect, by the way, since usually it takes an experienced clinician to properly identify a symptom in comparison to the many other similar ones he or she has knowledge of.  Nevertheless, most of us will identify with the patient’s wish to be “seen” by the doctor—to be more than a bundle of symptoms or a puzzling case, because, as we all know, we each individually and collectively matter—in other words, that our lives, including our diseases, have meaning.

It is this that shamanism attends to in the ailing client:  the meaning of the illness.  Whatever intervention follows, including collaboration with modern medical doctors, the shaman addresses the patient’s need to feel she or he matters and that his or journey through illness to health can have meaning.  This is perhaps the primary reason I refer to  myself as an educator.  I help people learn for themselves what is best for them and to take responsibility for their choices.  I like to remember too, that etymologically speaking, the word “doctor” also means “teacher.” 

That shamanism and any number of other complementary alternative healing practices are prevalent in the 21st Century among educated persons puts to the lie that this is merely superstition, faith healing or the placebo effect.  I said “merely”—there can in fact be such components as a part of a Reiki healing session, for example, but the same is true of shaking hands with your physician who smiles at you and wishes you all the best with new medication she has prescribed for you.  I want to clarify my reliance on the term “complementary alternative healing practices”: I’m not suggesting making substitutions for modalities that are working well for people in need.  If you consult me about a problem, I will ask you about what you have already tried that has and hasn’t helped.  I will also ask you what your idea of health is, or how you imagine a successful outcome to your problem.  

 Today, we have is an unprecedented knowledge of how other people in other times and places besides our own have regarded illness and healing.  If you look through the various pages of my web site, you’ll get an idea of who I am, what I’ve done, and what I’m doing these days.  I’m on a journey:  it’s not limited to the physical dimension of human experience.  

You can stop reading right here if that spooks you out or turns you off.  I wish you well on your own life journey.  If you want more information about shamanism in general and how I practice it in the 21st Century, read on and contact me. I believe that your best solutions, whatever your issues, will come from within you:  my job is to put you in touch with your own innate wholeness and your own sovereign capacity to make healthy decisions about your life.  I would never tell anyone to ignore medical authority or standard medical procedures, nor do I believe anyone else should make decisions about your health for you. You have a right to forgo your own decision making if you want to, to hand it over to others in whom you have placed your trust—but I believe that living a healthy life, living to the full capacity of your life’s energies depends on you yourself taking responsibility for your own journey.  

Traditional Shamanism 

The term “shamanism” has been current in Western languages for some time now, and before I tell you more about my work, I want to clear up some common misperceptions.  First of all, shamanism is not Native American spirituality—but certain healing and the visioning practices among various Native American cultures could be called “shamanic” by outsiders.  You can find shamans among First Peoples the world over;  persons whose vocations, activities, and roles among their communities are similar, and generally labeled as “shamanic.” 

Cultural anthropology has shown that there is no “one” shamanism, and 21st Century Shamanism is my own way of referring to what I do.  It’s my particular art of healing—actually a collection of arts or techniques, developed during the three decades I’ve been seeing clients individually or in workshops or in academic settings.  As I said previously, I’ve been practicing shamanism in one form or another for most of my life. Throughout my youth and early academic career, I thought I was simply a teacher and writer and artist who wanted to help inspire other people to live life fully—but that, by the way, is fairly good, basic definition of the shaman’s role. 

Like other healing arts, shamanism uses appropriate technologies as required by specific circumstances.  For example, I do traditional style soul retrievals for some people;  for others, I might do a fairly conventional hypnotic age regression, so that they can liberate themselves from a past trauma while in hypnotic trance;  for somebody else, I might use Reiki to help heal a long ago psychic wound in their energy body.  Another client might get more from a quiet conversation about their past and how it impacts their present life. 

Shamanism is creative. While anthropologists might insist that classically speaking shamanism has to do with spirits who for better or for ill have impacted people’s lives—the shaman, therefore, being the person who mediates the presence of such entities while he or she is in a non-ordinary state of reality—many modern MD’s know the value of such techniques as narrative medicine and therapeutic artwork for their patients. Also, many medics are themselves writers and artists and musicians. What shamans do is move energy, directing it to their purposes.  Sometimes this is enabled by the presence of a spirit helper or power animal or tutelary deity—sometimes it’s just a matter of seeing into a client’s blind spot about a behavior that needs to change. The etymology of the word shaman has to do with words for light, enlightenment, fire, seeing (in the physical and more metaphysical sense), and heat—which suggests the movement of energy. Shamans are masters of heat, inner heat and all sorts of fiery things. 

Another common mistaken assumption is that modern, educated people can’t possibly be helped by such ancient “medicine”, even when it relies on proven herbal remedies or hands-on manipulation or prescribes certain physical exercises.  This denial is based on the idea that the educated person, even one who wants very much to believe in shamanism, can’t “go native” to real effect.  Once again, let me state categorically that shamanism does not belong to any one culture, time, or place.  Its appearance across cultures and times suggests that the beliefs and practices arise out of our situation as humans participants in the web of life.  (Perhaps this is a reason that so many visionary, shamanic states feature filaments of light or of substances finer yet.)

Shamanism is humankind’s oldest spiritual legacy.  It’s already part of the 21st Century and I can’t see it going away so long as human beings have minds and bodies like ours. This moving energy, this heat, this light I’m talking about is innate in human beings.  Some people have always known how to apply it for the benefit of others.  Shamanism persists in many present day indigenous cultures alongside modern medicine for the reason that it works:  it gives people something we need in order to be whole.  Being whole is what the word “healed” originally means. 

You wouldn’t go to a car mechanic to fix your broken heart, and although you might feel “broken up” about the way you wrecked your beautiful car, you probably wouldn’t expect the mechanic to help you through the trauma of the accident and everything that followed.  What about your wreck of a love life?  Where would you turn for help?  What if your MD told you after all the medical tests that your problems were “psychological” “imaginary,”  “all in your head?”  And what if you couldn’t shake off the disturbing idea that despite all of your education and dieting and supplements, the void inside that you feel seems to have something to do with losing a part of yourself?  It’s possible that an indigenous healer practicing the Old Ways of her or his people could help you.  It’s also possible that you need some more contemporary form of “medicine.”  My aim as a 21st Century shaman is to meet clients wherever they are on their path, at whatever crossroads that they feel a new direction is necessary.  

Traditionally, among aboriginal peoples, whether they hale from Siberia, Australia North America, Amazonia, Scotland, or Congo—just to name a few examples—shamans are the visionaries of the tribe;  and indeed, in some societies everyone is considered to be at least potentially a shaman.  The distinction of who is and who isn’t a shaman in general has to do with those who embrace the calling; generally, such persons female or male apprentice to an established elder, and often they are subjected to intense physical hardships, besides the psychic challenges presented by the individual’s own initial calling.  Shamans are the artists, the image makers, the imaginative ones whose dreams and visions have real consequences for themselves and others.   They are held in high esteem by their people, in part because they have been “summoned” to fulfill their vocation by mysterious powers, but also because their means of contending with the difficulties of their lives, whether physical illness, psychological distress, or spiritual emergency, have given them a special insight that might help others undergoing similar challenges.   A shaman is in this sense a “wounded healer.” 

I could go on with further information about indigenous shamanism, but instead I refer you to the rather large body of literature, both academic and more user friendly, that now exists.  It’s a topic that came broadly into view for many contemporary spiritual seekers during the 1980’s.   Earlier, however,

in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the books of Carlos Castaneda, with their appeal to users of psychedelics, intrigued many;  even earlier, Mircea Eliade’s classic study, Shamanism:  Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, based largely on field reports from still earlier anthropologists and explorers, introduced modern readers to a serious consideration of the subject as more than an anthropological curiosity.  

In my own case, having already absorbed these works and others on such subjects as comparative mythology, Tibetan Buddhism, paganism, and Wicca, in 1983, I had the good fortune of working directly with Michael Harner, shortly after his important handbook The Way of the Shaman was published.  This book and Harner’s foundation for Shamanic Studies are generally regarded as basic to “the neo-shamanic movement,” which is still going strong.   Practitioners such as myself  have branched out in many directions, sometimes being initiated by indigenous wisdom keepers into particular lineages, and sometime synthesizing techniques from primal traditions, or amalgamating them with 21st Century therapies, including allopathic medicine.  My own path came into focus in 1983 when I met and worked with Michael Harner;  I saw that my various gifts and skills—artist, writer, university teacher, dreamer, son of a stage magician, ceremony maker, student of  Zen Buddhism—were all facets of my spiritual calling as a healer.  When I added the formal study of shamanism, it was a logical development along a way I was already following.  

“The Way is whatever passes, no end in itself,” my mentor and friend, the poet Gary Snyder once wrote.  He might have been referring to Zen, or to Taoism, or to any number of spiritual disciplines and paths;  the fact is, that a Way or a Path, a tradition or a lineage is a means of journeying:  it is not the journey itself, nor the territory, nor an instruction manual, and certainly not a stopping point.  Serge Kahili King, a teacher of Hawaiian shamanism, or Huna, has called shamanism “The Way of the adventurer.” 

My synthesis of these and other healing modalities including Reiki, hypnosis, the Tarot, and various modes of holistic counseling—as well as my years teaching in academic settings—have given me ample experience in what I call  21st Century Shamanism.  

If you’re interested in what you have read here or elsewhere about shamanism, contact me to make an appointment.