So You Want to Be an American Shaman…

A recent comment brought up a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a while. There was a request for more specific examples of how one can incorporate shamanism into general American culture (with the caveat, of course, that different subgroups in the U.S. and even individual people will react differently).

My personal favorite way is to find established roles in American culture that are more or less analogous to the shaman. There’s no single clear “shaman” role here, but elements of it may be found in several professions/callings.

The key in finding these roles is to look at the function of the shaman or similar figure in the cultures in which they are found, and then find roles in this culture that function similarly on some level. This is not a particularly animistic culture, and most people think the concept of spirits is either evil or insanity. Therefore there is only a relatively small slice of Americans who would be willing to consult a “shaman”. However, it’s still possible to fulfill the functions of a shaman while in a profession more commonly accepted here.

So what are the functions of a shaman? A lot depends on the culture, so please don’t take these as anything more than generalizations, but commonly:

–The shaman is a bridge between two worlds, whether between the community and a neighboring community, or the humans and spirits, or humans and non-human nature, etc. This can facilitate cooperation, but can also be integral to aggression, such as shamans working malevolent magic toward rival communities in times of war.

–The shaman is a healer, using physical and/or spiritual medicines and methods to cure ailments of the body, mind and spirit.

–The shaman is a mediator and may be called on to help with conflicts in the community.

–The shaman may or may not be an integrated part of the community, depending on culture. In some cases, the shaman functions as somewhat of a social scapegoat or outcast upon which the ills of the community are cast.

–The shaman is the keeper of rituals and lore, the applied mythology that creates meaning and facilitates passages in the community.

These are just some examples of functions of the shaman. So where are these found in American culture?

–Counselor/therapist: This, of course, was the path I chose. To my mind, one of the foundational functions of the shaman is as the mediator between worlds, and in addition to external relationships, this includes intrapsychic communication among different levels of the self. As a counselor, I will be helping people gain better insight into themselves and how their minds work, which can also be applied to clients’ relationships, life choices, and other external circumstances. While often shamans may go on journeys alone, in some cases they take the client with them into the journey. In the same way, a counselor may take a more directive approach in giving the client advice and prescribing treatment, or may be more collaborative and integrate the client in the decisions surrounding therapy–how much direction depends on a variety of factors including the client, what’s being treated, the “energy” of the individual session, and so on. In most cases the journey is into the psyche, not the Otherworld (though some would argue there’s no difference other than semantics), though some therapists, such as those incorporating narrative therapy, may help clients create and carry out personal rites of passage, sometimes even including friends, family and other relevant people.

–Doctors and other medical professions: A friend of mine became am EMT as part of her shamanism. Like it or not, the Western medical system is the dominant paradigm of healing in the U.S. This paradigm, however, is not as monolithically pharmaceutical as it once was, however. Preventive medicine is a bigger concern, and doctors are carefully integrating complementary medicines which are shown to be effective. When treating my acid reflux, my doctor, for example, is a well-established internist, but she consults her hospital’s database of treatments which includes both omeprazole and probiotics. Given that things like antibiotics and heart surgery are the reason that the average lifespan in the U.S. is in the upper 70s/lower 80s, any “healer” would be highly unethical to dismiss Western medicine entirely. In fact, a shaman should recommend whatever is most effective, not whatever is most trendy. This means that some shamans may want to get training in Western medicine, whether that’s first aid training, or medical school, or any point in between.

–Clergy: While the term “clergy” often brings up Christianity in most Americans’ minds, clergy as a function transcends religious trappings. A clergyperson is someone who is a spiritual leader in their community, who holds the rituals and mythos of the religion, and offers guidance within the structure of that path. Pagan clergy most often resonate with the role of shaman, but really, there’s nothing keeping a clergyperson of any other religion from also applying that function to themselves, other than personally perceived boundaries.

–Artist/writer/musician: The right-brained wellspring of creativity found in all arts is a wonderful tool for journeying and other practices of shamanism. A shamanic performance ritual, for example, relies a great deal on the suspension of disbelief to help the audience “know” that the shaman whose body is in front of them is also flying in another realm, perhaps even having turned into another animal or other being. Creative works, whether visual, auditory, etc. can all be portals to other levels of consciousness/planes of reality, and art may consciously be used to facilitate the same sorts of tasks that a shaman in another culture–who may also be an artist–may perform. The art does not have to be “shamanic” in nature; we do not have to take the methods of indigenous people instead of, say, acrylics and oil paints, scrap metal mixed media, DJing, spoken word, etc. What’s most important is the inspiration to shift one’s consciousness for a particular purpose.

–Scientist: One of the things that frustrates me to no end is the anti-science threads through spirituality in general, and neopaganism in particular. “Science” is seen as “cold”, “unfeeling”, lacking in imagination, etc. just because it doesn’t prove the objective experience of spirits and magic. Yet, to me, science is a source of great wonder and awe at the world around me. The Otherworld is an amazing place, and I don’t particularly care whether it’s all in my own head/collective consciousness or not, with no objective reality beyond the human psyche. But I do not try to put it in the same place in my cosmology as the world of atoms, or astrophysics, or the natural history of nonhuman animals, or photosynthesis. And to me, the things that scientists are discovering and exploring are every bit as important and inspiring as any journey I’ve had. The scientist doing research into new and uncharted territory goes into places where most people could never fathom and brings back information and knowledge to aid the populace. If that’s not shamanism, I don’t know what is.

These are just a few examples of analogous roles to the shaman in this culture. I’m sure my readership could think of more, and I’m certainly open to suggestions! So–whaddya think?

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32 thoughts on “So You Want to Be an American Shaman…

  1. Thanks for the pingback, Lupa. Once again, you’ve written a wonderfully insightful article here. I think people will be happy to know shamanism doesn’t have to fit into a neat little picture frame stereotype. πŸ™‚

  2. I would just like to say that I’m SERIOUSLY pleased to see Scientist included here. You’ve basically summed up everything I think and one of the main reasons that I, as a shaman, am going into Paleontology. Though life sciences are not the only place to practice shamanism in science.

    Thank you again for another great post!

  3. just wanted to say thanks for the shout-out to science and medicine πŸ™‚ i am a neuroscientist, work mostly in hospitals, and practice what i think you’d call american shamanism. i appreciate your recognizing the possibility of my ilk, and i guess i want to attest to my actual existence as well πŸ™‚

  4. It was first postulated by Neal Stephenson (in Snow Crash) that software engineers and system administrators could be said to fulfill a shaman-like role in some respects. It is the job of the coder and sysadmin to journey into a parallel world (virtuality, cyberspace, whatever you choose to call it) and effect changes there which ripple outward and propagate into the different worlds to manifest. We build and bring back the tools for others to communicate and extend their capabilities. We resolve disputes and figure out on what levels things are going wrong to get everything running smoothly again. Like things of nature, machines have their own spirits (sometimes awake, sometimes not, but usually more than one expects to find), and from time to time the solution really does require a personal touch.

    As for science being cold and unfeeling… yes, it can be. I say this uneasily, as both a magickian (a technomancer, specifically) as well as an engineer and software developer (by way of information security). Many in these fields have neither time nor inclination to concern themselves with anything more than what is immediately before them. At best such is irrelevant, at worst it does not exist, period, and you would be thanked to shut up about such things. The places do indeed feel cold (it does not seem to be just the HVAC) and kind of greasy. But, science also has an enthusiasm that one does not often find in the magickal community because science seeks to discover that which was not known before, and the excitement of discovery is enough to keep the fires burning, as it were.

    Living and vital science is out there, but you have to dig for it sometimes.

  5. I feel that my beekeeping and work with the local, organic soup kitchen slash cafe slash community center to be shamanic. We’re working to reconnect people with the Land and the Sea.

  6. I’ve really been enjoying your posts. I like that you point out that shamans had skills beyond spiritual ones that was part and parcel of their role. I think a challenge that shamans, witches and mystics of sorts have is integrating their spiritual life and their working lives. Some folks try a go at being professional mystics (tarot readers, reiki practitioners, teachers or professional priestesses) and others keep both works completely seperate. I like that you point out others ways of bring one’s spiritual work and one’s job-work together in a way that benefits them both.

    • Thank you πŸ™‚ And yes, it is tough sometimes trying to bridge the gap, especially in a society where esotericism is a distinct minority, and where most people don’t really grok it/ I’m hoping this post will help more people find good ways to combine the various areas of their lives.

  7. I submit that a Warrior – in my case a soldier – is also a form of shaman. Not all soldiers are warriors…and not all warriors are soldiers. But soldiers are all CALLED to be warriors, and I write from that perspective.

    I’m going to talk about some of the darker aspects of my work, only because it will further illustrate my point. I in no way mean to glorify violence or killing, because there’s none in either.

    A warrior and a killer are very different creatures. Warriors sometimes kill, yes, but are different from a killer or murderer in that their actions are guided by a code – written or unwritten. A true warrior kills only certain people, at certain times, in certain ways. All of his actions are guided by his ‘Code’. Most professional militaries have fairly well-established codes or creeds. Taken a step further into war, these even translate into rules of engagement.

    But why have a code at all? Wouldn’t that just get in the warrior’s way? Would it not slow him down or possibly even get him killed? And yes…sometimes it does. While the ‘Code of the Warrior’ protects noncombatants and enemies alike, it also protects the warrior. If not always physically, then spiritually.

    Warriors who engage in armed conflict are exposed to some of the most hellish situations – moral and physical – imaginable. That code provides a lifeline that he can use to extract himself and his comrades out of that hell and reintegrate with the society he fights to defend. These codes are an expression of the values, norms, beliefs, and spirituality of the Peoples they go to battle for. If a warrior willfully acts outside this code, he is no longer an agent of his people, no longer a warrior – but a killer or murderer. If a man kills with hate in his heart and no regard for his actions, he loses a piece of himself.

    So, as you can see…spirituality/morality/societal value systems play a huge role in the life, the death, and the existence of a Warrior. He walks that edge every time he goes to fight, with his spirit armored against damage by the beliefs of his people.

    Bearing the standard of a society’s values to another group (Foe and bystander alike), the warrior becomes a diplomat to everyone he encounters. He is a symbol of the people he represents, and creates a dialogue with other cultures founded in those beliefs.

    When one of us passes to the next life, we invoke those values to reaffirm to ourselves and our community the code we live by and the beliefs that inspire them. It is during these times that we look to one another for healing and guidance.

    While somewhat cloistered here in the U.S., overseas the Warrior often acts as a mediator between groups to solve community problems when the problem cannot be otherwise resolved.

    These are just a few examples of things I have personally experienced and can attest to.

    I leave everything here open to questioning, skepticism, and dialogue – I don’t have the market cornered on wisdom, but I’m always trying to buy some stock in it.

    -T

  8. Hey, thanks for writing about this and helping in breaking the traditional views that are cast upon what shamanism is. I’ve also pondered the same thing myself, who are the shamans of the modern day in western culture and how do they fullfill their roles.

    I haven’t seen many articles touch the subject as the role of the shaman seems to be seen as something that can be only passed on by others or something that only exists in native indigenous cultures, and in our modern culture medicine, science and rational thinking seems to have taken over the thought space.

    I believe shamanism can be seen in different forms all around the world, as the world changes so does the forms of shamanism.

    For me particularly the world of computers is something that is very interesting, as basically with computers we are able to create so much easier and draw ideas out of the collective consciousness/ether/astral realms and bring it to physical forms, not being limited so much by traditional material forms, instead expressing information in binary zeros and ones. I’ve written a short article about these metaphors if you’re interested more:
    http://lgo900.wordpress.com/2011/03/10/are-sysadmins-the-shamans-of-the-digital-realms/ (shameless plug).

    • I think it’s appropriate that in this culture shamanism often springs out of nowhere, seemingly, or at least not out of lineages many times. We are in some ways very rootless, and yet that in a way can be incredibly liberating.

      LOVE your article on cybershamanism; thank you for sharing!

      • Thank you for the love, replying a bit late but anyway πŸ™‚

        This is something I have been pondering for a long time, should we follow traditions exactly like has been done for hundreds of years, especially when the world has changed so much. The thing with traditions is that sometimes they can restrict us more than help us, but still according to many belief systems and religions, we should just stick with the tradition and not start thinking of new ways on how to do things.

        This notion of being rootless gives me a new view, that shamanism can and is still existing everywhere, not just where traditions can be still found, and indeed it can be very liberating. And re-assures the idea that we should not limit ourselves to tradition, especially where it doesn’t come naturally or has no roots in yet. Thanks for the idea πŸ™‚

      • Better late than never πŸ™‚

        I have absolutely no problem with traditions. What I criticize is the use of those traditions by people who weren’t raised with them. There are times when it can be appropriate to share, but I think too often nonindigenous people ignore their own backgrounds and try to grasp for some mystical single answer elsewhere. Appreciate what others bring tot he table, but don’t forget your own offering.

  9. Hi there! Great post! Glad I ran across it.

    This is EXACTLY why I got my degrees in ecology and conservation biology. I didn’t think of it as shamanism at the time, but I am definitely trying to bridge two worlds.

    For most modern humans, wild animals and plants and ecosystems might as well be supernatural spirits for how blind most people are to them. As an example, in grad school I took a course in ornithology where most of it was spent on field trips learning to spot and identify wild birds. This is REALLY not as dry as it may seem! Once we students were done with the course, several of us remarked about how now it’s like a whole new world has opened up to us that we never even knew was there. Suddenly we were all seeing birds EVERYWHERE, all different kinds of birds we never knew existed. And that’s never going to be turned off either. It’s like I was blind before. I mean, I had seen birds before, but I didn’t REALLY see them.

    Maybe it’s like learning to read or learning a new language, where before it was all jibberish and now it’s all clear as can be. I took some other classes like that which did similar things for other aspects of the landscape, but the ornithology class was the best one.

    But now everyone else seems blind to things that are obvious to me. I know what all the animals and plants are around here, the ecological and geological processes, and they only see a fraction of that. I imagine this is how a shaman feels who sees spirits everywhere that most people don’t. It’s almost distracting now that I hear all these bird calls and think about what that bird is and what it’s doing, when other people seem to have them tuned out. “What bird?” they’d say. They didn’t even hear it.

    I think that when people were all hunter-gatherers, everyone had this knowledge, but it’s been lost to most people now. I also think it’s damaging to both us and the environment. Most people can’t read the more subtle signs of an unhealthy ecosystem, and most people don’t notice when various species become rare because they didn’t notice them to begin with. The ways it’s damaging to us is a bit less known to me, but I’ve read some psychological texts about it that seem to indicate it is damaging us (for example, Last Child in the Woods about the damaging effects of not PLAYING OUTSIDE is having on children).

    So not only am I in tune to another world, but I think that by doing so I have the potential to bring about healing. I did a summer job once as a park ranger, and it was really rewarding taking kids (and their parents!) out on hikes to see all the cool birds and bugs and other critters are out there that they didn’t know about before. AND they acted like I had some sort of magical powers for being able to point them out to them.

    • Thank you for this comment; it’s a really nicely developed perspective on your particular field’s interaction with the environment on a pragmatic level, which is also quite relevant to spirituality! I strive to be more aware of the environment as it is, and while I don’t have your training I feel that your example is an important one.

  10. I’m glad to finally see someone say this about the scientist. As a microbiology/biochemistry major and a pharmacy Ph.D. candidate, I can honestly say that my education was the key to making me realize how intensely spiritual the physical world can be. And the relationship works both ways; concepts I’ve learned in my scientific studies have led to enormous spiritual insights. And I agree with your classification of our work as a sort of shamanism; I couldn’t begin to explain the things I study to a layman, even in simple terms, but you’ll be glad when the knowledge we’ve collectively accrued saves your life.

  11. Brilliant and beautiful. I especially loved it when you mentioned science being shamanic. I’ve always felt similar in that regard, but couldn’t of put it in better words than you have.

    I personally have made a path for myself that has science as part of the foundation in my spirituality, because I’ve always felt great inspiration and awe when scientists have something new to share from their learnings. It has made me more respectful with a more wondrous perspective of Nature than I would have without science to inform me.

    Well said, it was a great read and great inspiration.

  12. I would suggest that journalism is a means of shamanism, though the profession has been twisted horribly in the past couple of decades. Journalists, heralds, and messengers of many kinds all journey to strange lands, whether materially or through the reports of others, search for truth and receive knowledge and messages, and then disseminate these things to the world they know. They can also bring the knowledge and news of their homeland to other places, including the task of keeping soldiers and emissaries connected to the home they serve.

  13. I was going through an internet list of questions when I ran across this one: Who were the three people with the greatest impact on your life in 2011?

    “Lupa” was the very first name that popped to mind.

    This post altered the way I thought and changed my life. Thank you.

  14. –The shaman is the keeper of rituals and lore, the applied mythology that creates meaning and facilitates passages in the community.

    Librarian, ‘specially when they lead story-tellings. Grandma.

  15. Hi there, Great Article. πŸ™‚

    I would like to comment on the following part of your post as well as speak to the idea that Shaman’s provide “treatment”.

    –The Shaman a healer, using physical and/or spiritual medicines and methods to cure ailments.

    I use Shamanism regularly as part of my work and understand that we Don’t ‘treat’ or ‘cure’ people. We facilitate healing. The act of treating or curing someone involves doing something to them, rather that with them. It is the person who chooses to heal and the Shaman who facilitates it. Without the person choosing to heal, the patterns (or reasons) that precede the imbalance repeat or continue. May be just semantics but I feel it is important to understand that our approach can compliment but is different in this manner from western medicine.

    • Thanks for your comment! it does depend on the culture; in some cultures the shaman *is* seen as the healer, not just a facilitator thereof, and that’s what I was getting at in this post. As a mental health counselor myself, I’m well aware of the limitations of my ability to make someone else’s change happen–which is why I focus on being of support to someone who is making their own change.

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