I believe that we’re at the beginning of a shamanic Renaissance. Shamanism has been rapidly disappearing from the planet as missionaries, colonists, governments, and commercial interests overwhelmed tribal peoples and their ancient cultures. During the last decade however, shamanism has returned to human life with startling strength, even to urban strongholds of Western “civilization,” such as New York and Vienna. This resurgence has come so suddenly that most of the public is probably unaware that there is such a thing as shamanism, let alone conscious of its return. There is another public, however, rapidly growing and now numbering in the thousands in the United States and abroad, that has taken up shamanism and made it a part of personal daily life.
The return of shamanism has perplexed many observers outside of the movement, so I would like to suggest a few of the factors contributing to this revival. One reason for the increasing interest in shamanism is that many educated, thinking people have left the Age of Faith behind them. They no longer trust ecclesiastical dogma and authority to provide them with adequate evidence of the realms of the spirit or, indeed, with evidence that there IS spirit. Secondhand or third hand anecdotes in competing and culture bound religious texts other times and places are not convincing enough to provide paradigms for their personal existence. They require higher standards of evidence.
The New Age is partially an offshoot of the Age of Science, bringing into personal life the paradigmatic consequences of two centuries of serious use of the scientific method. These children of the Age of Science, myself included, preferred to arrive first hand, experimentally, at their own conclusions as to the nature and limits of reality. Shamanism provides a way to conduct these personal experiments, for it is a methodology, not a religion.
The age of science produced LSD, and many who have come to shamanism had already conducted experiments, albeit informally, with psychedelic drug trips, but they found they had no framework or discipline within which to place their experiences. They searched in the books of Castaneda and others for roadmaps of their experiences, and sensed the secret cartography play in shamanism.
The Age of Science also produced the NDE (near-death experience) on a large scale, due to a new level of medical technology that has permitted millions of Americans to be revived from a clinically defined state of death. Near-death experiences, although unplanned, have turned out also to be personal experiments that tested, and commonly changed, the NDE survivor’s previous assumptions about reality and the existence of spirit. These people, too, searched for maps, and many have turned to the ancient shamanic methods in the course of their search.
Shamanic methods require a relaxed discipline, with concentration and purpose. Contemporary shamanism, like that in most tribal cultures, typically utilizes the monotonous percussion sound to enter an altered state of consciousness. This classic drug-free method is remarkably safe. If practitioners do not maintain focus, the simply return to the ordinary state of consciousness; there is no preordained period of altered state of consciousness that would tend to occur with a psychedelic drug.
Shamanic methods can also work surprising quickly, and in a few hours, many can have experiences that might otherwise have taken years of silent meditation, prayer, or chanting. For this reason alone, shamanism is ideally suited to the contemporary life of busy people, just as it was suited, for example to the Eskimo (Inuit) people whose daily hours were filled with tasks of struggle for survival, but whose evenings could be used for shamanism.
Another factor in the return of shamanism is the recent development of holistic health approaches actively utilizing the mind to help healing and the maintenance of wellness. Many of the New Age practices in the holistic health field represent the rediscovery, through recent experimentation, of methods once widely known in tribal and folk practice. Shamanism, as a system embodying much of this ancient knowledge, is gaining increasing attention from those seeking new solutions to health problems, whether defined as physical, mental, or emotional. Specific techniques long used in shamanism, such as changes in one’s state of consciousness, visualization, positive thinking, and assistance from non-ordinary sources, are some of the approaches now widely employed in contemporary holistic practice.
Another important reason that shamanism has wide appeal today is that it is spiritual ecology. In this time of world-wide environmental crises, shamanism provides something largely lacking in the anthropocentric “great” religions: reverence for, and spiritual communication with, the other beings of the Earth and with the planet itself. In shamanism, this is not simple Nature worship, but a two-way spiritual communication that resurrects the lost connections are human ancestors had with the awesome spiritual power and beauty of our garden Earth. The shamans, as a late, distinguished scholar of shamanism and comparative religion pointed out, are the last humans able to talk with the animals. Indeed, I would add that they are the last ones able to talk with all of nature, including the plants, the streams, the air, and the rocks. Our ancient hunting and gathering ancestors recognized that their environment held the power of life and death over them, and considered such communication essential for their survival.
Now we, too, are starting to recognize the power of life and death that our environment holds over us. After incredibly reckless and merciless destruction of the other species of the planet, of the quality of care, water, and the Earth itself, we are returning to an awareness, however slowly, that the ultimate survival of our species depends on respecting our planetary environment. But respect alone is not enough. We need to communicate intimately and lovingly with “all our relations,” as the Lakota would say, talking not just with the human people, but also with the animal people, the plant people, and all the elements of the environment, including the soil, the rocks, and the water. In fact, from the shamans viewpoint, our surroundings are not “environment,” but family.
Today, from Zurich to Auckland, from Chicago to Sao Paulo, humans are again taking up the ancient way of the shaman, often in drumming circles or groups which meet regularly for practice and healing work. These groups are autonomous–working, as shamans have from time immemorial, independently in small communities to learn, and to help themselves and others. And these informal communities are part of a larger community now truly international but without hierarchy or dogma, for the spiritual authorities, as in troubled times, are found directly in non-ordinary reality by each individual shamanic journeyer.
Many other persons primarily work alone, outside of groups, using prerecorded shamanic music, but when employed correctly, this can be surprisingly effective.
These new practitioners are not “playing shaman,” but are going to the same revelatory spiritual sources that tribal shamans have traveled to for thousands of years. They are not pretending to be shamans; if they get shamanic results for themselves and others in this work, there indeed the real thing. Their experiences are genuine, and, when described, are essentially interchangeable with the accounts of shamans from non-literate tribal cultures. The shamanic work is, in some regards, the same, as is the human mind, heart, and; only the cultures are different.
Pursuing their shamanic practices, they have come to realize that what most people describe as “reality” only barely touches the grandeur, power, and mystery of the universe. The new shamans often cried tears of ecstasy when undergoing and recounting their experiences. They talk with mutual understanding to persons who have had near-death experiences, and see hope were others may see hopelessness. They tend to undergo a transformation as they discover the incredible safety and love of the normally hidden universe. The cosmic love they repeatedly encounter in their journeys is increasingly expressed in their daily lives. They are not lonely even if alone, for they have come to understand that we are never really isolated. Like Siberian shamans, they realize, “Everything that is, is alive!” Everywhere they are surrounded by life, by family. They have returned to the eternal community of the shaman, unlimited by the boundaries of space and time.
Reprinted with permission from The Way of the Shaman, Published by Harper, San Francisco, 1990