To Be or Not to Be a Shaman

Every so often someone who attends one of my workshops or calls in to my radio show will tell me that he or she is a shaman, they’re supposed to become a shaman, or someone has told them that they’re a shaman. Although I can understand and appreciate their intent, adopting that designation is typically based on a limited understanding of what the term “shaman” really implies. In the strictest sense, there are only a few people on this planet who can rightly claim the designation of shaman based on the original meaning of the term.

In an article from The Journal of Shamanic Practice entitled “A Shamanic Adventure in Modern Medicine,” Jeanne Achterberg, author of Imagery and Healing cites a point made by Stanley Krippner, co-author of Spiritual Dimensions of Healing, and a respected researcher and writer about shamanism and spiritual healing. According to Achterberg, Krippner believes, “There is a world of difference between being a shaman, which involves decades of apprenticeship, experience, and acknowledgment by the community, and simply practicing shamanistic techniques. It is the latter which describes the activities of the vast majority of us who engage in drumming, ceremony, chanting, dancing, storytelling, and other activities associated with traditional shamanism.”

If you were to live in an indigenous community for several years, becoming intimately familiar with the natural world while being apprenticed by the tribal shaman, then perhaps you could lay claim to that title. Your mentor would typically have a long lineage from which they draw the stories, healing practices, and what collectively can be called the Ways of Their People or clan. In fact, it’s not typically the individual who confers that title on themselves, but the community they serve.

I’m not denigrating anyone for claiming that name; I just don’t believe it should be on your business cards or that you publicly claim to be a shaman without some extensive training and experience. Even if you’ve gone through two or three years of training with someone who gets you started with shamanic practice, that doesn’t necessarily qualify you as a shaman. Sorry, but that term implies something much richer, deeper, and ancient than most of us have access to. The label more properly belongs to someone living in and of the land, operating within a culture whose people have lived on that same land for many centuries and have learned from those beings in the natural world through the spirit of those beings, or that you’ve been extensively trained with someone who has. The shaman communicates with all the people of their land; just happens that some of these “people” look like animals, some like plants or trees, and some like stones. Being a shaman in the traditional sense of the word implies so much more than knowing some spiritual healing techniques or having identified your power animal.

What you can claim, however, is the moniker of shamanic practitioner, which implies that you have some proper training, have a solid working relationship with your spirit guides, know how to journey, and you’re clear that your mission is healing in the broadest sense possible. A shamanic practitioner must be familiar with the mystical and cosmic realms as well, but the primary work is here on the Earth, to bring guidance and healing to the people—including the plant people, tree people, animal people, and stone people, to name a few—and to do what they can to bring about balance between us human beings and the natural world.

It’s necessary to honor those traditions and ancestral linkages to the original shamans, whatever particular philosophies and methodologies you have studied. However, to bring these practices into the 21st century requires us to move beyond the confines and controversy regarding the meaning of the term shaman. It’s also apparent that more and more people are drawn to shamanism, perhaps partly as a means to connect with our human ancestral lineage and the spiritual power to which the original shamans had access.

In considering these points, I set about looking for another term that would both acknowledge and honor the incredible gifts of our ancestral shamans while at the same time recognizing the need for a more contemporary term that would have at its foundation shamanic practices yet be accessible for those of us raised in this era. I’ve also found that many of these methodologies are useful for nearly anyone who is called to do spiritual healing and has the intention, sincerity, and inspiration to develop this kind of practice. Since shamanic work encompasses the Earth spirits and often with the help of the established spirit guides creates miracles, the term Earth Magic came forth.

Training is essential to be a shamanic practitioner and for some of the more advanced healing processes introduced here, yet many of the techniques and processes can be useful to most people, even without formal training in shamanic practice. For those who are called to do more with this, I would strongly advise enrolling in some formal training such as shamanic practice or Earth Magic practice.

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