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June 3, 2010

Modern Day Shamanism

By Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Summary: The word "shamanism" has become very popular. But what does it mean and why do traditional North American deplore this word. Traditional healers are accountable to their communities. Others in the anonymous society must face regulation and must prove that they are more beneficial than harmful. The word shaman is no doubt here to stay, but there is an advantage to resisting it in that it brings to attention the di


I am late on my usual Monday piece for OpEd News because I spent the week teaching Cherokee bodywork at a well known retreat center on the Eastern seaboard. I had many opportunities to hear the word shamanism and to reflect upon its use.

In my workshop, I was quick to tell those assembled that shaman is largely a term of insult in Native North America, used to refer to people who claim to be traditional healers without traditional training. On reservations throughout North America, people spend most of their life learning how to be a traditional healer. They feel a bit miffed about people attending weekend workshops and putting out their shingle as "shamanic practitioners." Probably they feel miffed about anyone who wants to skip the 10,000 hours necessary to become really good at something. Probably they resent the money differentials for these "urban shamans" compared to healers on the reservation.

Having said that, let's unpack the term shamanic practitioner." I would venture to say that Michael Harner and Sandra Ingerham made it popular through their Institute for Shamanic Studies. In this usage, based upon a study of Mongolian shamans or healers, the "shamanic practitioner" journeys for the client to the underworld or the upperworld to retrieve missing parts of the soul or entire souls and to return them to the ordinary or middle world. North American traditions do not have upper, middle, and lower worlds, so one obvious difference emerges. In most of the North American traditions I have studied, the healer (or in some ceremonies, the intercessor, a term which suggests a Roman Caatholic derivation), engages elements of the spirit world and requests their help in healing someone in the ordinary world. Anyone is allowed to do this, just as in Christian churches, anyone is allowed to pray for another's healing. Healers are recognized as having a bit more skill than most or, at least, more powerful spirit helpers, or a better track record at eliciting the help of the spirits. When a person is really sick, they need all the help they can get. More minor sickness can be healed internally within the family through prayers and without the help of an external healer.

The traditional healers of North America clearly work with spirits and request the help of the spirit world. They clearly appear to work with energy, as in energy medicine. Besides physical bodywork with rubbing, shaking, moving, and other types of massage, I have seen traditional healers use their hands above the body and on the body to move energy. I have seen then remove curses and objects placed within the body through curses. I have seen them move stuck energy, through singing, chanting, the waving of feathers, sucking, blowing smoke, smudging with sage, cedar, sweetgrass, and other herbs, and more. I have seen them work with crystals and rocks to augment their efforts. Inevitably they speak of the spirits that assist them in these pursuits. So why don't they want to be called shamans?

One obvious reason comes from the use of terms from other languages to describe what we do for which there is a perfectly good term already existing in our own language. In Lakota, for example, a healer with spirits and energy is called a wicasa wakan, while a healer with plant medicine is called a wicasa pejuta. Why would one of these people want a title from a Mongolian language?

But there is something else harder to pinpoint. There is the sense that these "shamanic practitioners" have not earned the rights. They have not suffered enough. They have lived in relative suburban or urban comfort and have learned to speak a metaphorical language that they may or may not be entitled to speak.

The man who drove us to and from the retreat center told us that workshops with "shamanism" in the title really sold. We were concerned that enrollment was down for our weekend workshop and wondered if we should add shamanism into the title. Should we or should we not give into the demands of contemporary culture. I still maintain that we should not. Why can't we use words like "energy medicine" and "spirit-guided healing". I resist the shamanism label for perhaps the same reasons that it has pejorative connotations in Indian country. It seems superficial. It appears to lack depth. I don't necessarily believe that a twenty-something, after a series of weekend trainings, is prepared to journey to the underworld for me and do battle with hostile forces, saving me from near certain doom. Why should I believe that she is doing this?

In a traditional cultural context, I believe the elder. He or she has authority, presence, power that is palpable. I've never heard an elder use the language of "shamanism." I've never heard one of them say that they journeyed for me, retrieved a soul, extracted an entity, etc. I've heard them talk about dreams that came before I arrived. I've heard them report guidance given by spirits for how to help me. I've seen spirits speak through them in ceremony. But I haven't seen anything in North America which qualifies for what is being promoted as shamanism in the contemporary workshop circles.

Large sums of money are exchanged in the pursuit of shamanic healing, but does it really work? Do the weekend shamans help people? I don't know. I have met people who have been helped by traditional healers, but not so many by the contemporary urban shamans.

I suspect that contemporary people are looking for quick routes to healing. I suspect that traditional healers are reacting to this. There are no quick routes. Healing takes time. It takes commitment. It takes immersion in a culture for more than a series of weekends.

I don't believe that I am a shaman or a traditional healer. I do my version of healing. It is inspired by the traditional. Sometimes the people with whom I work hit a home run and experience what could be called a miracle. Sometimes not. I strive for results. I ask for spirit assistance and guidance. I take what I get. I don't claim to understand the extraordinary worlds or to be able to classify them. I haven't found what the Shamanic Studies people describe. I have found an amazing panoply of diverse worlds that have no clear rules for connecting them. I consistently discover that the extraordinary world is more extraordinary than I can ever imagaine.

I do meet spirits. Some come often. Some come only once. All have interesting perspectives. I listen. I take their guidance as best as I can. I try to do what they tell me. I work with energy. But also I try to help people change their stories. I endeavor to empower them to own their work and to continue it without me. I don't know what to call this. Why do we need so many labels anyway? Couldn't I just call what I do, "something". I could say that I know a lot about something. On the other hand, I don't know anything about everything. I know nothing about some things. Couldn't I just do what I do without labels? That's possible in traditional society and in small towns. I could be "that guy", the one you call when you're suffering more than you wish. That would be preferable to me than being a shaman, or a psychiatrist, or a healer. I'd just like to be "that guy". Could we have an "Institute for That Guy Studies"? Could we offer a Master's degree in Something?

The problem here is accountability. If I'm "that guy", I'm accountable to others in my village and tribe. If I'm out in the modern world and charging for my services, I'm accountable to "the powers that be". I have to have some assurance that I'm not hurting people. So I need a label. I need qualifications. I need to assure others that I'm not harmful. That's what changes everything. Anonymity is the birthplace of hierarchy. When no one knows my name, I need labels and certifications and regulations. It's when everyone knows my name, that I need none of this. Traditional healers have that luxury. They don't need to be called shamanic practitioners, because everyone who matters knows who they are.

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Authors Bio:
Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and Narrative Medicine.