This introduction to shamanism, and shamanic practices will guide you towards wisdom and insight through the use of rituals, spiritual journeying and working with dream interpretation.
Shamanism Explained Simply
- What Is Shamanism?
- How To Pronounce Shaman and Shamanism
- Priest, Healer and Sage
- What is The Role of a Shaman?
- How Shamans Achieve Altered States of Consciousness
- Modern Shamanism
- What is a Mandala?
- What is a Medicine Wheel?
- What is a Dream Catcher and How is it Used?
- Drawing Mandalas to Expand Your Consciousness
What Is Shamanism?
Shamans were tribal priest-doctors responsible for officiating at ceremonies and rituals. They advised the elders, tended the sick and injured and cared for the spiritual well-being of the people.
More recently, the term has become a generic word used in reference to anyone who fulfills that role in all traditional societies around the world.
Shamanism does not recognize differences of age, gender, race or religious doctrines and so is available to all. Indeed, many people have had shamanic experiences without labelling them as such. Like everything else on earth, human beings are part of creation, and shamanism is a human way of connecting to the collective conscious.
It is a fundamental part of human heritage. And although the connection may be weakened by the pressures of modern life, the ability to connect and the inclination to do so, is still present in many of us. Indeed, there has been a significant rise in the number of shamanic practitioner courses offered in the western world in recent times.
How To Pronounce Shaman and Shamanism
Priest, Healer and Sage
When societies were much more remote and self-reliant than today, shamans played an important role in their cultures. They treated the injured and sick, but they were not specifically healers or medicine men and women.
Although they talked with ancestors, spirits and gods, they were not just priests. While they acted as advisors to their communities, they were not solely sages. Rather, they fulfilled a combination of these roles.
What is The Role of a Shaman?
To understand what the role of a shaman is, you need to adopt a world view relative to traditional tribes. Typically, older cultures were animistic societies and were more in touch with the natural world. Animism comes from the Latin word anima, which means soul. These older cultures held the belief that all things possessed a soul or spirit.
The key role of the shaman was to act as an intermediary in relating to the other spirit guides of the earth: the animals, the land, the rain, the crops and so on. As humans were so reliant on the forces of nature and other spiritual beings of the planet, communicating with them was seen as a way of foreseeing problems or finding a solution to them.
The shaman worked by sending his soul out on a journey to meet the other spirits. He would ask them to ensure a successful hunt. Or to determine why a crop was not growing, or if there would be a water shortage. These soul journeys could also take the shaman to other dimensions (such as the astral plane and Akashic Records) where they could communicate with gods or acquire powers.
How Shamans Achieve Altered States of Consciousness
It was this ability to travel to other realms that marked out the shaman. This phenomena is known as a shamanic vision quest.
Often it was unlooked for, with visions occurring spontaneously, or caused by traumatic experiences. What is often now termed “madness” was seen as being “touched by the gods”. Shamans usually lived apart from the community, but individuals who could hear voices and experience realities beyond normal perception were regarded with respect. Altered states of consciousness could be induced by a shaman seeking to go on a journey.
The drum was a very powerful shamanic tool, seen as a mode of transporting the soul on its regular beat as it opened gateways for the shaman.
Dancing was another method employed to achieve a trance state, usually to contact a specific animal spirit. By moving the body in a way that mimicked the animal in question, the shaman became that animal and was able to relate directly to it. Costume was also important in this respect. The use of feathers, skins and bones was seen as a way of linking with spirits and journeying to other dimensions.
Sacred plants have long been used as a means of accessing spirit worlds. In Europe, fly agaric, psilocybe mushrooms and doses of hemlock were all used to enter an altered state of consciousness. In Mexico, the peyote cactus is still eaten to bring the shaman into contact with the spirit of the universe. Ayahuasca (a plant-based psychedelic) is increasingly used today by shamans.
Such plants induce visionary trances and heightened telepathic abilities which allow the shaman to “tune in” to the different levels of creation or travel to other worlds. Because of the powers of these sacred plants, they need to be approached with respect and ceremony.
Traditional shamans, then, held a position of influence but also one of great responsibility. The people would turn to them first in matters of importance, and the shamans would use their abilities and powers to find a satisfactory outcome.
In European cultures there are many myths of shamans and shamanic adventures. In the Arthurian legends, Merlin possessed divinatory powers and could shape shift, commune with animals and spirits and travel to the other worlds. Odin, the chief god of the Scandinavian Pantheon, was another famous shaman. He gave up one of his eyes in return for a drink from the well of Mimir, the source of all wisdom. He also sacrificed himself on the World Tree to learn the wisdom of the dead, bringing back runes from the underworld.
Traditional shamanism still exists in many places in the world, especially where the old cultures remain strong. It is not uncommon for people to seek the assistance of a shaman in the lands of the Arctic, Africa, Australasia, Indonesia, North and South America, Mongolia, China and Tibet.
Although in modern Western societies there seems to be little need for a shaman to help with problems about food, the weather or disgruntled gods, there is a place for shamanism on a personal level. Shamanism is a way to find our place in the universe. By embarking upon a shamanic journey to other levels of consciousness, the modern shaman can reach depths of insight that can lead to spiritual enlightenment.
On a typical shaman course today, you will learn how to:
- Go on a shamanic journey and enter different states of consciousness.
- Meet your spirit animal guide.
- Use a medicine wheel.
- Use breathwork techniques for healing and releasing grief and anxiety.
Specific courses which involve the use of drugs, such as Ayahuasca, are training programs in the Shipibo healing tradition of plant spirit medicine known as curanderismo.
If you qualify as a Shaman Practitioner, then you will probably spend most of your time accessing different states of consciousness, to offer your clients healing and spiritual guidance.
What is a Mandala?
Mandala, is Indian (Sanskrit) for circle. Mandalas are a geometric design that holds a great deal of symbolism in various indigenous cultures. Mandalas are believed to represent different aspects of the universe and can be used for meditation, prayer and rituals.
The Native American Medicine Wheel and Dream Catcher, is a type of mandala.
What is a Medicine Wheel?
The Medicine Wheel, sometimes known as the Sacred Hoop, is one of the most important Native American symbols for the universe.
The teaching of the Medicine Wheel is that you will keep moving around its circumference until you can reside in the center. Here you become one with the wheel of life and are in harmony with its ever-changing patterns.
This cross within a circle represents the four seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter). It may also represent the four directions (north, south, east, west) and the four elements (fire, water, earth, air). All of which are contained within the outer circle, which is representative of the world. In the two-dimensional wheel, the horizontal axis of the cross also represents the directions of below (Mother Earth) and above (Father Sky).
The four seasons are symbolic of time, and the four compass points symbolize space. In addition to these basic concepts, animals and colors invest the Medicine Wheel with rich and never-ending layers of meaning within the circle that describes the cycle of life.
The Native American people traditionally see all life forms as an integral part of a single existence. Ad this existence surrounds us with its teachings. Every living creature, every rock or stone is part of the pattern of the universe. Everything contains a spirit, which is the essence of its connection with the world. To walk a path of beauty and truth is to walk in harmony with the spirits.
Life, Death and Rebirth
The Medicine Wheel symbolizes the cycle of life. When you are born you begin your journey on earth in the east at dawn. This is a place of light, vision and new beginnings. As you grow up and begin to learn about the world, you move to the south and a time of innocent joy. As you grow further you develop your intuition and imagination and suffer the pain of growth in the west. Eventually you move for a time to rest in the north and intuition becomes wisdom. After replenishing your strength, you are ready to begin your journey again in the east. And so the cycle rolls on and turns again, until, after many revolutions of the wheel, you pass into the sky as spirit.
What is a Dream Catcher and How is it Used?
The Native American “dream catcher” is a mandala of the dream world.
This “wheel” is made from a single thread that is knotted into a spiral web and adorned with birds’ feathers and decorative beads. It hangs above a person’s head while they sleep. The idea of the device is to catch all the good dreams, whose teaching will remain on waking.
The bad dreams, however pass through the holes in the web and are released into the universe. At the center of the catcher; the spirit can pass into the dream world.
In a similar manner Native American shields are created to ensure protection from bad spirits and to act as a call to the person’s spirit helpers. Each one of these shields is a unique, individually decorated circle made of skins, feathers, beads and threads. Each one is a weaving of the owner’s own spiritual path and is a type of personalized mandala.
Drawing Mandalas to Expand Your Consciousness
In the 20th century, the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) developed the use of mandalas as an aid to psychological understanding. He drew a mandala every day to express his innermost thoughts and feelings.
Each time he noticed that within the circle he had drawn was a snapshot of his mental, emotional and spiritual state. It was as though the images were reflecting his inner self. He also realized that the expression of the circle was universal. Children spontaneously draw them, as do adults when they doodle.
Jung came to see the mandala as a pathway to the self. He began to use it in his work as a psychiatrist to help his patients make deeper connections with themselves. The circle or sphere of the mandala represents the psyche that holds within it, at the center, the true self. He believed that the top of the mandala indicated emotions that were held in the conscious mind, while the base symbolized areas of feelings and thoughts that were deep in the unconscious.
Jung’s influence has been far-reaching. In fact today, many people are interested in creating mandalas and using them as tools for self-expression. With the spread of many old magical traditions through Western civilization, new mandalas have appeared.
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is a group that combines Eastern traditions with Western magic. It created a set of mandalas called Tattwa Cards, as an aid to reaching the spiritual self. Tattwas contain simple symbols such as moons and circles. The images are meant to be meditated on to develop the vision and experience of the inner self.
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Karina, author of Tarot in 5 Minutes.