For a long time I equated shamanism with esoteric antiquity. Something practiced in the far past, or only pertinent to those who were born and raised in an indigenous culture. As an anthropology student in college, I was trained to see shamanism as an isolated practice of healing, one that was far more rooted in a dream of the past than the reality of our modern-day world.
For most of my early adulthood I understood shamanism to be naturally inaccessible for a westerner of no particular origin.
Then, the dreams started.
Soon after I moved to the mountains I began to have nightly dreams in which I was studying with teachers who called themselves ‘shamans.’ Every evening I was being taught things that defied the framework I’d been handed in life: like how to move through space and time, or heal with snakes, or sing to the soul of plants. When the dreams first began I had no idea what they meant, except that I woke up with the word “shaman” imprinted on my mind.
Just like our ancestors might have brought an important dream to the village oracles, I eventually took my dreams to the Google oracle, and when I typed in “shamansim” I found, not an isolated or ancient cultural oddity, but a vibrant, living practice that was at the heart of a new healing movement in our world. Soon, every idea I had about shamanism, imprinted from my anthropological education, began to dissolve.
Shamanism, a spiritual practice that can be traced back over 40,00 years, is, at its root, a way of seeing. The word itself “shaman” comes from the Evenki people, a Tungusic tribe in Siberia and meant one who sees in the dark. Commonly considered the ancestor of all religions, shamanism is, today, a global phenomenon predicated on the idea that everything is alive and has a spirit. That every aspect of this world is interconnected, and that our earth itself is a gorgeous co-creation. A living dream we spin together.
Shamans are those that can see the living in-between, who can peer into the worlds of the invisible, the universe of the unseen. In truth, shamanism is a practice of exploring and expanding consciousness to perceive wider reality. In traditional cultures, a shaman’s job was to interact with the wider world of the invisible for the healing of the entire community. Depending on your tradition, these worlds may be called alternate realities, parallel universes, the Otherworld, the Dreamtime, the spirit realm, or simply non-ordinary reality.
We all experience spaces of non-ordinary reality— every time we dream, or get lost in the maze-like beauty of the forest, or fall in love. Non-ordinary reality happens when we have a brilliant flash of insight, or feel the heart-calming presence of a loved one who has passed. It happens when we follow the threads of our intuition or when we have a bird swoop overhead and we get a shiver because we know— this has meaning. Shamans are fluid interpreters of meaning in the world. Traditionally, a shaman was someone whose life work involved interacting with the meaning hidden behind illness, blight or obstacle. When meaning is retrieved from the realm of the unseen, true healing begins.
So what does it mean to become a shaman of your own life?
It means that you practice seeing beyond the obvious, beyond the physical day-to-day to peer into the subtle mystery behind it all.
It means opening yourself to a wider meaning, to the possibility of what is hidden beneath the confusing, diluting or painful aspects of your life.
It means connecting with the spirit of the world. Talking to plants, and communing with waterfalls, and recognizing that you are a part of it all.
Over the years I’ve come to love this term shaman. It has helped me understand, in so many ways, the work I am drawn to. It has helped me describe my experience of being alive, and all the wonderful depth and complexity of healing that is available on this earth. And it has helped me locate myself in a vast history of humanity. To see that the desire to seek meaning, to move gently through a world of consciousness, and to perceive magic in the ordinary is not a new age concept at all, but a shamanic one.