Shamanism – Some Common Questions and Problems Addressed

Shamanic Butterfly Mayan Art original painting by Isabel bryna
Shamanic Butterfly Mayan Art original painting by Isabel Bryna

Before I get to the question and answer bit, I want to point out that I don’t sugar coat things, and also that the below is based on my experience, and those I have worked with. Therefore, as with most things, get a second opinion if you doubt that I say, or want it verified – it’s only sensible after all.

However, Shamanic work is no joke, and it’s not a game, it’s a very serious commitment and I view it accordingly. If you don’t like my approach, that’s fine, there are plenty of other sources of information out there.

Also, this is aimed at the beginner, so if you are already in contact with Allies, Guides, etc., then you’d be better off listening to them than to me. On with the questionsÂ…

I am interested in working shamanically, what do I do?

First you must ask yourself a question: why? Shamanism is pretty trendy at the moment, and it’s fairly easy to find a book or take a workshop on it. If it is just out of curiosity, I would recommend that you read a book or two on the subject first, before actually trying any of the techniques. Also, if you are currently on medication for any disorder such as psychosis or schizophrenia, do not attempt to work shamanically. Your underlying problem must be treated first before you will be able to journey without any danger.

Hey, you’re not my Mother, what do I do?

There are two ways you can approach it, either buy a book on the subject and start using the techniques they suggest, or take one of the many workshops that are currently being advertised in your local area.

Which would you recommend?

I’m not too happy with the commercialisation of shamanic practice, or the high prices that many a so-called shaman charges for a workshop. I don’t like the fact that shamanic practice is now becoming the domain of the middle-class, or those with plenty of money – a spirituality cannot be bought, but the current method of learning-by-workshop certainly does not give that impression. I have to say that taking a workshop is not really necessary, especially since I worked on my own for over a year before taking my first workshop. I’m well aware that not everyone has a funds to pump into workshop after workshop, and once you make contact with your Power Animal(s) and your Spirit Guides, as long as you follow their advice and teachings, you can work without much outside guidance. I’m not saying this is ideal, merely that if you are determined to follow this path, and you don’t have funds to pay for a workshop, there are alternatives. Books are much cheaper, and can be ordered from your local library. In this regard, I’ll make some recommendations.

If you are a complete beginner and know nothing about shamanism at all, I would recommend Caitlin Matthews’ book, Singing the Soul Back Home: Shamanism in Daily Life. It is well-written, very clear and simple, and offers sensible advice as well as explanations of the shamanic cosmos and the techniques necessary to get started. It will give you the basics necessary to start journeying in a safe and secure way.

If you remain interested, then Piers Vitebsky’s book The Shaman: An Illustrated Guide is a very good overview of shamanic practices around the world, along with Joan Halifax’s Shaman: The Wounded Healer.

After this, you might be ready to try and digest the heavy-hitters, and certainly Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism : Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy is considered the seminal text on the area (though it is not for the faint-hearted, being a rather densely-written book).

After that, Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman is one of those quoted “must-read” books.

After these, I would suggest you read some books written by people who recount their personal experiences with shamanism. Two of the most inspirational I’ve read, by Western men who had their perspectives changed by their encounters with Spirit, are: Tom Pinkson’s The Flowers of Wiricuta: A Journey to Shamanic Power with the Huichol Indians of Mexico, and John Perkins’ The World is as you Dream It: Shamanic Teachings from the Amazon and Andes.

After this, I have a lengthy listing of books in my library section, most, if not all, I can recommend. However, reading these books is not mandatory, and I know some people are intimidated by reading so many text books and get put off by this. Once you get the basics down, and learn how to journey successfully, then listen to the advice of your Allies and Helpers and do as they suggest.

Now, regarding the workshop route. I am not saying you shouldn’t go to workshops, again, I’ve taken several of them myself, so it would be extremely hypocritical of me to say not to go to them. However, for those of you with limited means, this may not be an option, or one that you can take very often. As a result, I would suggest you carefully examine who is giving workshops on shamanic practice in your area.

A lot of people seem to put faith in a certification process, and those who appear to be “qualified” as shamanic practitioners. Some people seem to think that the higher the value of the course, the better the information. As if you can put a price tag on a spiritual experience! Don’t rush into anything. Find out who is giving workshops in your area, and how much they are charging. Find out what other people say of this particular practitioner and his/her workshops. A personal recommendation from someone who isn’t financially benefiting from the course is the best bet, especially if it is from someone you trust.

Find out if the costs include accommodation and lunch/dinner (especially if it is a weekend course), and approximately how many people will be on the course with you. Personally, I’d be horrified if one practitioner was giving a beginner’s course to over 20 people. Find out where they got their training and how long they have been working. If a shamanic practitioner is on the straight and narrow s/he won’t mind a few well-intentioned questions.

Also – pay attention to your own intuition. If something does not seem right about the person, or you feel uneasy in any way, then there is a reason for it. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with the practitioner, but now is not the right time for you to take this course.

Wow, I’d found my power animal(s) and I’m journeying several times a week, what next?

First off, it’s not a race. Some people initially find shamanic journeying wonderfully inspiring, and there is a tendency to become addicted to the experience, and resent having to come “back to the real world” afterwards. For the first six months to a year, I would suggest that one journey a week is more than adequate, especially if you are also meditating daily. You can incorporate your Guides and Allies into your meditations and this allows you to keep in good contact with them. You run the risk of burning out if you try to do too much too fast. Again, talk to your Guides and Helpers about this, ask them how often is appropriate for you to journey to them. Believe me, they will not be too impressed if you start turning up every day with no other objective than to say hello. They have other things to do, and you can expect them to get peeved if you don’t respect the fact. In fact, with nearly every question you have, the standard answer could almost always be: “ask your Guides”.

Remember that an essential aspect of working shamanically is balance and harmony. You should be able to walk between the Worlds, and this means that the “ordinary” world is just as important as the Other ones. Don’t neglect one in favour of the other. Try and take a balanced approach to the frequency of your journeys, and always have a purpose when you journey. Some Guides and Allies can also be trusted friends, but that doesn’t mean you can start taking them for granted.

Also, learn simple grounding and centring techniques – you won’t be able to interact with people if you’re “away with the fairies” all the time. Make sure you keep a journal of all your journeys, and write them up immediately after the journey if you can; you’ll be surprised how quickly the details fade, even after a couple of hours. It’s probably a good idea to start keeping a diary of your dreams as well, as you’ll probably find an increase in activity on that front too.

Every six months or so review your journals and diaries, keeping an eye out for information which you have failed to act on, or projects you were assigned which have fallen by the wayside.

Other sensible things to do are to reaffirm your connection to the Earth. For those of us living in an urban environment, trips to the countryside can be rare. Remember you can journey to these places to reconnect, and setting up some sort of meditation space, where you have a couple of items like feathers, nuts, shells, and a candle, is not only pretty to look at but reminds us of our essential connection to all things. Be creative. Stretch your artistic talents – if you think you don’t have any you are wrong. Celebrate the world, be it in song, dance, art, music or other talents such as story-telling, poetry or acting. These forms are also excellent ways to work through issues which are upsetting or unbalancing you.

I haven’t journeyed in weeks, and I can’t seem to find any incentive to do so, what’s wrong?

Like many things, shamanic work seems to move in cycles. There will be weeks when you are learning lots of information and are having fascinating journeys, and then there will be times when you cannot find the energy / time / interest to journey at all. Don’t be too hard on yourself or expect miracles. If you learn a lot in a short time, often you will need a break for it to filter down through all the layers of your consciousness. If you are not journeying much, however, make sure you still keep in contact with your Power Animal and/or Guides – you can do this by meditating for a couple of minutes every day, or keeping a picture of your Animal in a place where you can see it frequently.

It is very important to keep the lines of communication open between yourself and your Power Animal in particular. This is one of the reasons why you should not just take a workshop, or start using shamanic techniques, for the fun of it. You are making a commitment to the Animal(s) and Guide(s) you are working with, and deciding you want to back out of the deal isn’t going to be received well by them. If you completely ignore them for a long period then you can expect to get a severe wake-up call when they serve you with notice that they are fed up of your bad manners.

If you continue to ignore them and renege on your agreement, then eventually they will leave. This will result in tremendous power loss and probably sickness on your part. Getting them back after such a break will be difficult, and they will probably not agree to work with you again until you prove your commitment in some substantial fashion. Usually, the longer you work in this area, the more frequently you journey, and while you will occasionally get “time off”, those periods occur with less regularity.

Is this real? I’m doubting my journey experiences, and don’t know if they are real or just inventions of my imagination. What should I do?

There is very little I can say that will assuage your doubts, or make you feel better. One of the things I can tell you is that we all have them. Every person who works shamanically is often besieged with doubts at various times. That little voice within us which tells us that we are inventing it all, that it doesn’t exist, and we are going mad. It can get very loud at times, and everything seems to crumble around us under the force of that sound. Remember that the imagination is a tool that Spirit uses to communicate with us. Yes, it can be faulty, and so it is correct to apply a little common sense to all your experiences.

What is “real” anyway? What constitutes proof for your experiences? We have been taught, from early childhood, to discount anything we can not verify with our five senses. When we start to use our other senses, we try to fall back upon our old methods of verification, and they usually won’t work on these experiences. The more work you do in this area, the more your other senses will begin to feed you information about the people and surroundings in your environment, and it’s not very often that you will get outside verification of that input. However, you do get them.

For example, someone will tell you the history of a house that you had already picked up on. Such instances are to be treasured. This does not mean that the doubts will go away entirely, and in some way I think doubts are healthy, if rather uncomfortable at times. I’m always sceptical of anyone with supreme confidence in what they do: either they are genuinely a prodigy (some do exist, but they are more rare then common) or they have an inflated notion of what they do. The main thing you can do in the face of your doubts is to acknowledge them, understand what impulse is driving them, and to continue with your work. Talk to your Guides and Helpers about them, and ask for their help – they should at least have the odd word or two of comfort for you.

Sometimes I get flashes of information about a person, or a place, should I tell them about it?

Having a very strong sense of ethics is very important in this line of work. Never volunteer information of that nature to a person without getting an explicit direction from one of your Guides or Allies to do so. Don’t hint mysteriously about it either – that’s worse and you’re only doing it to make yourself look clever; few people appreciate it. Just because you know something doesn’t mean that you have to go and blab about it to everyone. Accept it, and add it to your “things I noticed” pile. It might mean something, or it might mean nothing at all.

You will also begin to freak people out if you start commenting about things they can’t see or notice, and it’s nothing to feel superior about. Most people pick up on things all the time, but brush them off as unimportant or just an anomalous experience. People who work shamanically over time become sensitised to such information, and know better than to discount it – this is not something to get excited about either as it’s often distinctly uncomfortable to notice these things.

This kind of experience does highlight the fact that the Three Worlds of the shamanic cosmology are really not all that far from our everyday existence, and in fact, the difference between them all might seem increasingly artificial. The Middle World is superimposed over “our” World, for example, and the more you work the more these conditioned boundaries fall away. That’s way it’s important to be grounded and centred at all times. The shamanic worker walks between the Worlds, s/he does not let any of them consume his/her attention completely.

I feel depressed and uncertain, my whole life seems in disarray, and I can find no real reason for it. Help?

This is another side effect of the work, and it is something every practitioner has to learn to deal with. This is where having a support network, or a friend you can talk to, is very important. In the Irish tradition it was considered imperative to have an anam chara – a soul friend. This was thought to be especially important for a person’s spiritual well being. You will find over time that you will begin to gravitate to certain people, who understand you and know where you are coming from. They are usually the people who will listen without judging you, and you know will be there for you no matter what you say. It is important to be able to articulate your fears and doubts to a physical person, as some of us are prone to brooding over things and keeping them inside for fear of scaring anyone. At the very least, if you have taken a workshop with a practitioner, they should allow for a certain amount of contact afterwards.

Before continuing onto the issue of depression and shamanic crisis, I would just like to make some comments about on-line friends. The internet is a valuable resource, and many of us have made superb contacts, learned a great deal, and formed fast friendships because of its existence. However, as in life, exercise a little caution – the novice to the internet is more prone to fall into some of these traps than others. Remember that many people lie on email. It is very easy for people to sound knowledgeable even if they possesses just a few facts as long as they put across their opinions with flair. It is often the people who make grandiose claims, who are on first-name basis with innumerable deities from various – and often opposite – pantheons, who are the ones to watch out for. They do things like engage in “astral combat” on an apparent nightly basis, and are skilled in “magic / magick / majick” from the youngest age. I have found that it is the people who are less vocal who have something worth reading.

Never broadcast your intimate Spiritual details on a mailing list, bulletin board or chat room – the whole world is watching. Giving your Spirit name, or the species or name of your Power Animal, without checking if this is all right first, is a great form to disrespect to those who work with you on a Spiritual level. Eventually you will find people whose friendship is worth your energy and time. Ask your Guides or Allies for advice if you are ever in doubt of the information given to you on-line.

Also, be very wary of people who say they can do things like power or soul retrievals long distance for you, or offer to solve all your problems for you when you don’t know who they are. Be sensible, and a little caution and a smidgen of paranoia are no harm when dealing with this medium. It is possible to form very close and important friendships over email, but like in life, such friends are few and far between, and all should be scrutinised with some element of objectivity. Finally remember, as important as these on-line relationships are, to have friendships with people you can physically meet is also necessary.

We all experience the “long dark tea-time of the soul”, as Douglas Addams humourously put it. It seems to be part of the learning process. You may feel utterly alone, as your ego is stripped away to show the essence of yourself. It is a difficult and upsetting period, and a person can be prone to depression and emotional upset, for no apparent reason, during it. This is because the layers of your conscious and unconscious mind are being stirred up, and many things surface to confront you. Most people would agree that while it is tough, you do learn a great deal about yourself, and tend to emerge on the far side a stronger and more centred person. There is no easy solution. You have to learn to ride it out, as a surfer does over waves. For every trough there is a swell.

This is sometimes referred to as the “shamanic crisis”, and it can be mirrored in your journeys where you experience a shamanic death – where you are ripped apart, and reassembled as a new person. In fact, such a journey often heralds the end of a period of depression – signalling your emergence from a period of transition and adjustment. Such experiences can be frightening, but shamanic work is not for the faint-hearted. You will not be treated with kid gloves, and some lessons can only be taught the hard way. Of course, none of this is any comfort when you are in the throes of such an experience. These lessons are there to toughen us, to show us what motivates us, what our fears are, what controls us, and ultimately, who we are. I’d like to quote from a book by Karen Berggren, called (Circle of the Shaman, p 55) in which she addresses this very problem:

“The shamanic initiation crisis then is essentially an inextricable experience of intense psychological chaos and turbulence, sometimes lasting for weeks or months, and in some cases for several years. In the shamanic worldview, however, such experiences are requisite for dissolving any habitual ways of seeing and behaving that would interfere with fully assuming the shamanic vocation.”

In retrospect, we can all appreciate the importance of a time of testing, and can marvel at our new understanding of ourselves – unfortunately, this is cold comfort while we are experiencing it. All you can do is hold on and try to learn the lessons you are being shown.

Why all the doom and gloom, surely it’s not all this bad?

Of course not, in all things there is a balance. Personally, I don’t think there is enough emphasis on the dangers and pitfalls of shamanic work, or at least, people seem to ignore them and consider they will not happen to them. Shamanic work is not about fast fixes or the instant cure for the practitioner him/herself. We are the instrument of Spirit, therefore we acknowledge that our “power” (that misunderstood word) does not come from within. We open up the lines of energy and transformation between the Worlds for the benefit of others and the Land.

We communicate directly with the Universe, there is no safety line, or filters, which is why it is important to work with one’s Guides and Animals all the time. We work in lands of dangerous beauty, places of ineffable mystery, and wonderful insight. If you cannot remember that the path of a shaman is that of service to the Community, our Ancestors, and the Land, then do not step onto this path.