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Shaman Guide: Keys to Understanding Shamanism

Shaman Guide: Keys to Understanding Shamanism
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In the past decade Shamanism has jumped out from the depths of the jungle into mainstream society. Anyone with access to the internet can connect with hundreds of shamans and sign up for their workshops, tours, and experiences. Only people indigenous to a shamanistic culture—and a few outsiders, mostly westerners in Birkenstocks—used to see Shamans. However, today the guidance of shamans is widespread, even to the extent of powerful suits taking advice from, and sitting in ceremony with, their own personal shaman. 

Shamanism is a complex way of life with many variations. We have put together a comprehensive guide with a generous amount of input from Raimutsa, a plant medicine shaman indigenous to Peru, and Willko Apaza, an Andean spiritual guide or paq’o (which is often translated to shaman).

What is a Shaman

A shaman is defined as a person having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, especially among some people of northern Asia and South America. Typically, such people enter a trance state during a ritual, and practice divination and healing.

When asked to define shamanism, Raimutsa replies: 

Shaman, as in any word, is limiting because I believe someone referred to as a shaman goes beyond the characterizations or limitations of words. What we are talking about is a way of life that you [the shaman] commit yourself to. In my case it is the healing of the planet, as we are all in it together, and also for the thriving of humanity, the evolution of the species of consciousness. It is a person that commits one’s life to the healing of oneself and others that goes along with the motivations one has. And on another level it is a person that can interact with the energies that are in these dimensions, or in other dimensions, that can talk with consciousnesses, that take other forms in the formless manifestation.

It is a way of life where one commits to the path of no path as we call it … so every situation can be a situation to grow.”

When asked the same question, Willko says that although it is very popular to say “shaman” nowadays, for Andean people the word does not exist. “Paq’o, curandero, hombre medicina. This is what you will hear these people called.”

The History of Shamanism

The timeline of shamanism can be followed through the origin of the word shaman. It is believed to come from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman, meaning “the one who knows.” But there are others who believe its derivation comes from the Evenki word šamán, meaning “to know,” from the southwestern dialect spoken by the Sym Evenki.

The belief that the word shaman originated from the Siberian Tungus tribe suggests that shamanic practices may have existed for over 20,000 years, meaning this wisdom has been passed down through hundreds of generations.

Anthropologists have since coined the term “shaman” in reference to many indigenous persons who serve their community’s needs for healing, and connecting to the spirit world, which explains the variety of indigenous shamans worldwide. Prior to the newly spread worldwide title of “shaman,” these same people outside of Siberia were simply referred to as healers in their community.

Indigenous Shamans

Indigenous shamans originally were solely in Siberia, but have spread throughout Asia, Australia, South Africa, and South America. They fulfilled the role of healer, prophet, spirit guide, and a conduit to the spirit world in their tribes and villages. Indigenous shamans today often solely practice their traditional customs and ceremonies. These often include practices of religions most popular to the region. However, this is slowly changing among some of the younger generation.

Modern Day Shamans

Shamans are of all ages, with different backgrounds, beliefs, practices, and cultural origins. Many energy and spiritual healers use the title shaman, regardless of their own cultural backgrounds. Oftentimes, “modern shamanic” services lean more on the side of a life coach for one’s personal and spiritual choices. The shaman may offer guidance on energy focus to better an individual and, consequently, humanity. Many offer a wide range of ceremonies to help connect an individual to his true self, and to the vibrations of the earth and other worldly spirits.

Today many indigenous shamans modernize through their ability to access technology. They are able to offer their services to anyone in the world and charge money for them, as a way to fund their own ongoing work. Many “new-school” indigenous shamans have expanded their practices beyond traditional techniques to include plants and substances that are not indigenous to their region, including cannabis, varieties of DMT, and other psychedelics.

As Raimutsa points out,

We are not living in the jungle, we are living in the modernized twenty first century world … It’s about integrating intelligence into human life so we can shift and upgrade, enhance and uplift the vibrational and energetic way of interacting with all that is happening within the planet and multiverse.”

Religious Practices, Beliefs, and Rituals

Shamanism does not fit into many of the sometimes restrictive molds we are accustomed to with religious practices. Shamans can marry. They do not ask for followers. There is no specific scripture all shamans live by.

Cultural beliefs, religion, and shamanic practices depend greatly on geography. In areas taken by the Spanish invasion it is extremely common to see Christian beliefs deeply rooted in shamanic ceremonies. Religious paraphernalia, scripture, and religious titles are mixed into the traditional ceremonies and lifestyles.

Shamans in the Amazon often carry rosaries and are raised with religious backgrounds that combine Christianity with ayahuasca ceremonies. In Peru, Wachuma, the traditional name for San Pedro cactus, is a common plant medicine used among shamans. San Pedro was the name given by Spanish priests who tried the medicine and believed the psychedelic experience was equivalent to reaching the gates of heaven. Saint Peter traditionally holds the keys to heaven’s gate.

Raimutsa’s approach to spirituality is also common in the shaman community.

In my experience I don’t go with as much of religious work, instead I go with a spiritual, or philosophical belief. That means for me that spirituality doesn’t need to be connected to any kind of religion. Spirituality for me is connected to a reality which has limitless potential. The spiritual path is connecting with nature. Plants, in my case, have developed my spiritual approach to life. Personal experience has taken me to realizations about the nature of things, the nature of the mind, the connection to nature, the connection to oneself and the connecting of energies.”

How to Become a Shaman 

The journey to shamanism greatly depends on what type of shaman is in question. Any individual can go online and take classes to learn the ways of a shaman. All one has to do is google “how do you become a shaman,” or maybe even take the ten-question quiz, and voilà. But is this a reliable way to go?

It is important to know who you are putting your trust in. This is true especially when the topic is energy work and plant medicine.

A shaman can be either male or female. A shamaness (female shaman) is sometimes called a shamanka (shaman plus the Russian suffix “-ka” for feminine nouns).

Traditional shamans start at a young age, learning the ancient ways that have been passed down from generations by shadowing their elders. They can be individuals seeking a life free from the constraints of standard living, who are taught irreplaceable lessons through plant medicine. Or they can be deeply connected individuals who “feel the calling” and answer with an open mind and open heart, walking a line between worlds, and testing the limits of their own minds and bodies in extreme ways to understand the outer realms they wish to guide through.

Differing Paths to Becoming a Shaman

Willko explained that in Andean culture there are three different wisdoms, or paths to becoming a shaman.

The first is to study, with one Paq’o, or spiritual guide, that helps teach and mentor you in this way. The second is someone who receives the role generationally, through their conscience in a genetic transmission.” And the third is what Willko considers himself, a survivor of a lightning strike, though not literally. “The first time the lightning kills you. The second time your body is left in pieces, to be put back together. You are born a new human being, a new person.”

Willko’s grandfather began teaching him when he was nine years old. Unfortunately, his grandfather, Pasqual, died when Willko was 14. His grandfather left him a package that he did not open for many years. “I was too young to understand what my grandfather was teaching me,” Willko explains.

The Crucible of the Shaman’s Calling

“When I was 18, I experienced a family sickness. I was sick as well. Finally, I opened the package and found stones inside a leather satchel. I knew my grandfather did ceremonies with these stones. I put my hands inside the satchel and felt energy going from my fingertips to my head.” After that experience, Willko says, he had horrible nightmares, sleepless nights, and felt worse than ever. He decided to head into the mountains to burn the satchel. “I was sleep-deprived and confused. I said to Pachamama, the spirit, please kill me.”

It was a rainy, stormy night. Miserable and defeated, Willko slept on the mountain in the rain. But when he woke it was a beautiful, sunny day. “I felt better, at peace. it was clear that it was not a dark energy, but my grandfather teaching me to confront my fears.” That is when he felt his calling, “It was my initiation. I survived the test.” Spiritually enlightened, he returned home to embark on his journey, working under a medicine man once again.

There is no specific initiation, per se. But Raimutsa points out that profound hardship is an irreplaceable teacher in the journey to shamanism. It tests our boundaries and truths in a way nothing else can. It shows a person what he is truly made of. One must fully know himself to know how to heal and guide others.

He also adds:

You must have deep, profound experiences with plants. For sure the training has to be with people who go into crazy situations. Who test you on every level.”

Shamanic Practices

Many shamanic practices include journeying through other realms. Plant medicine, communing with spirits, plants, and other energetic forces can facilitate this journeying. One must purge the negative for the betterment of all life. Guides through the spirit world are of great aid in the face of death.

Plant medicine ceremonies are a staple in shamanic practices, and vary based on region.

Willko points out that ayahuasca has become so popular that people forget about the many other ceremonies and tools that he believes can be just as powerful and healing. It is important to remember that ayahuasca is just one of the many practices used by the medicine people of his culture. Coca leaves, for example, are very important to Willko’s rituals. He regularly uses them by holding up three leaves, representing the mountains, and setting an intention before chewing on them.

Dangers of Shamanism

Shamanic ceremonies should be approached with healthy caution. Many ceremonies include intensive work emotionally and physically, opening your mind and body to multiple spirits and alternate worlds through strong substances. This is not something to take lightly or do without extensive understanding and trust in your guide.

Although rare, there have been reports of deaths at ayahuasca retreats in South America. Beyond the risk of life, mental stability is a strong consideration. For most, these ceremonies are life-changing for the better. But there are real mental health risk factors. People with strong family histories of bipolar disorder or psychosis need to avoid psychedelics of all kinds.

How to Choose a Shaman

For people living in a community with indigenous shamanic practices, it is easy to find a reputable shaman. However, for many westerners this is not the case. With so many variations of self-proclaimed shamans offering their services these days, it is important to know exactly what type of shaman you are seeking. Do your research,first and foremost. Ask around in your community. Read reviews, and ask to meet the shamans.

Raimutsa says he is always hesitant to refer anyone because it comes with immeasurable responsibilities.

It is a fine line … the principal aspect people should look for are the intentions, the understanding, the motivation and drive of the shaman’s work.

You know when the vibrations or intentions are meaningful so usually what people should look for in a shaman they cannot see with their eyes. Vibes don’t lie—as they say.”

What are a Shaman’s Abilities?

According to Christina Pratt in The Encyclopedia of Shamanism, a shaman is a practitioner who has gained mastery of:

  • Altered states of consciousness, possessing the ability to enter altered states at will, and controlling herself while moving in and out of those states.
  • Mediating between the needs of the spirit world and those of the physical world in a way that can be understood and used by the community.
  • Serving the needs of the community that cannot be met by practitioners of other disciplines, such as physicians, psychiatrists, priests, and leaders.

Raimutsa says that shamans’ abilities vary. The ones that they develop depend largely on their intentions.

If they have the intention to be a good healer they are going to develop these abilities. For me, the use of plants helped me develop certain abilities, super intuition. Your head goes ahead of time and you can see past present and future in milliseconds … you can for sure manifest your intentions and thoughts and feelings, but that has to go with ethics and, in my case, has to go with an altruistic motivation … to develop abilities for an ego approach or ego intentions doesn’t have much sense or meaning.

Some people in the community are super intuitive and can communicate by dreams, by the mind. I keep in contact by mind and heart with my community friends that are shamans. You will see that many times they work beyond the logic.”

Do Shamans Have Powers?

Many believe that shamans do have powers. These may be guiding the dead to rest, or protecting the living from unhealthy and dark spirits. There are numerous recorded accounts describing outer-worldly powers shamans have shown during ceremonies.

By attaining a trance state at will through chanting, plant medicine, or other forms of energetic exchange, the shaman is believed to be able to communicate directly with the spirits. This allows the soul to leave the body to enter the spirit realm. In this way, it acts as a mouthpiece for the spirit-being, as for a medium.

Are Shamans Chosen?

Shamans are not chosen; they choose the path themselves. Lucid dreams, visions, plant ceremonies, and other signs often account for a young person’s journey to shamanism. However, it can also pass down generationally. A shaman must feel compelled on his own to delve into the spirit world and guide others through the many practices and ceremonies.

Willko believes he will be passing along his wisdom genetically.

Right now my oldest son is showing an interest, but he needs to learn much more. Sometimes it can skip a generation. I am not sure when I will be transmitting my consciousness. It does not work that way. It is more for the energy to decide those moments. It is time when the energy says it is time and where it is to be directed.”

What Drugs do Shamans Use?

Shamans have many entheogenic plants in their toolkits, but these are not considered drugs. These plants are solely acknowledged as sacred medicine, and should be treated with only the highest level of respect.

Traditional ceremonies and rituals revolve around the many plant medicines available to a region. These include palo santo, ayahuasca, coca, and Wachuma (San Pedro). It is important to note, as mentioned in the article Cannabis and Ayahuasca: Mixing Entheogenic Plants, that most traditional shamans do not encourage all plant medicine, largely because some plants may simply not be indigenous to their region.

Preserving Tradition

There is a lot to be said for the argument of who should be allowed to call himself a shaman. Plants, spirits, and the many realms shamans travels through do not acknowledge them based on age or skin color. These are human judgments. Yet the title of shaman is cultural and it is fair to say that it demands respect, and even protection.

This is an argument that some people, indigenous and otherwise, feel strongly about. Culture and tradition are only a part of the multifaceted backbone of the 20,000-year-old word shaman. But they are not to be dismissed.

Raimutsa admits that he has struggled with the idea of nonindigenous people serving plant medicine.

Nobody can guarantee what the new shamans are doing and that is where all the stuff coming into play can go rogue. If you call yourself a word or concept you are separated, so the word for that is lack of information or ignorance.

We wish them the best for sure without judgment. I don’t judge them, indigenous or not. Whatever they are doing, if they are doing it with good intentions they are doing the work. If they are not doing it with beneficial intentions the plants are going to take care of it on their own. At the end of the day it’s about respect because we are no different. We are to learn from every experience and learn how to react.”

Contributing Author: Peter Pietrangeli

Pete is a writer, film producer, and former owner of the dispensary L.A. Confidential, opened in 2009. He currently resides with his family, two dogs, and tortoise in the epic land of Santa Cruz, California. His psychedelic favorites are entheogenic plants, which have recently been decriminalized in Santa Cruz. Outside of writing for Reality Sandwich, Pete is devoting his time to developing a film script on cannabis prohibition. He will be producing it next year. Pete is a true lover of music, dogs, nature, and freaking freely. He is also a genuine exotic cannabis cultivar nerd.

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