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?