What is Shamanism?

Guardians of Darkness
Tani Jantsang

The subject of Shamanism came up where some people were relying on the dictionary definition of Shamanism, or a definition made as a result of Western anthropologists in the past and/or New Age people later on. Dispute came when it was stated that Native Americans are Shamanistic.  Please understand that a Shaman, or a person wholly familiar with real Shamanism thinking that some Native Americans are Shamanistic would be miles away from a Western anthropologist thinking that or a New Ager thinking that. 

There is much written in anthropological circles by Western scholars that has sought to "define" the many nations of Native Americans, despite protestations that "these are wrong" from the various Native American peoples.  And there is the New Age use or abuse of various Native American traditions, which the Native Americans strongly resent.  In all of this wrong-headedness and abuse, the word Shamanism comes up, as if these Western people know what Shamanism is within Shamanistic cultures.  The fact is: they do not! 

It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable that Native Americans would also only know of Shamanism only from these wrong-headed sources.  As such, not knowing what real Shamanism constitutes, the Native Americans really are in no position to say, "Yes, that's like what we believe and practice," or "No, that's nothing like what we believe and practice."  Let us say that someone claims you are a moozhcheena.   How can you insist that you are not a "moozhcheena" or are a "moozhcheena " if you have no idea what "moozhcheena" means?  You can't; not until someone explains exactly what it means. 

For one main thing:  there is no such thing as "THE Native American religion."  Their religions vary and/or are very different from tribe to tribe. 

For the second main thing: the Western "dictionary" or "Western anthropological" or New Age definition of Shamanism itself is wrong. 

This is now put here in the hopes that Native American peoples can see what people that are from Shamanism and who have lived in that tradition have to say. 

First of all, the word Shaman is not an English or Western word.  It is a word well known to people of Central and Eastern Asia and the near Arctic zone regions who practice it and who have practiced it and who live it.  Other words for "a shaman" are Boga and Uber in Turko-Tatar-Mongol languages.  Ngagspa would be a Tibetan word for the equivalent. 

There are certain specific features in Shamanism that are not in paganism of any kind and not in polytheism or monotheism.  For one, it must be understood that in Shamanism, natural phenomena are observed and given causes and effects that are not scientific as we understand science, but they are also not supernatural. 

All cultures, no matter what religion they are, have healing practices. To equate Shamanism solely or even mostly with healing is also a mistake. Therefore, how the various and different Shamanist cultures heal illness will not be addressed here, since it would be as meaningless as attributing "medicine" to Christians and Jews because most modern discoveries in modern medicine were made by Christians and Jews.

It must be clearly understood (if that's even possible) that the concepts themselves of Deity and Spirit are nothing like Western concepts of such things. 

There is a Supreme Spirit.  That's as-given.  Even inside of one culture, there can be many titles for it (not names).  For example: The Lord Time Devourer; Boundless Everpresent Darkness; Incomprehensible Black Fire; Great Spirit; Great Mystery Spirit; The Incomprehensible Thatness; The Beingness; The Be-ness; The Infinite and Ineffable IS; The Unknowable Absolute; and so forth. 

This is something that is felt to be in all things, not just living things.  It's not some abstract idea of the mind alone.  This Deity is never exclusively transcendent or apart from all things; it is both transcendent in that it is the first thing even before the "all that is" (Cosmos), It is before anything else was; but it is also in all things, here, and/or all things here are in IT!.  Both.  It is a force or field that permeates and motivates all that is.  

As one Native American put it when specifically asked about this:  "The physical universe consists of many individual things, including the bodies we inhabit and everything those bodies perceive through the ordinary senses. It also exists as an entirety - that which we call the Universe - just as our body, for example, exists as an entirety while still being made up of discrete components which exist individually and separately. Spirit, likewise, exists as something like a 'field' encompassing - and permeating - all things in the physical universe.  Where that spirit permeates an individual, component 'thing' within the Universe, it too, exists as an individual, discrete 'thing' (or 'essence' if you will) and that individual spirit reflects (or determines, depending mostly on your point of view) the Nature of the physical thing it is attached to. Consciousness, with its emotions, ideas, values, moral character, etc, springs from this spirit, not from the physical object itself. In other words, 'I' am not a body with a 'soul' or 'spirit' residing within, but rather [I am] a 'spirit' or 'soul' residing within a particular body. Since 'Spirit' permeates all things, everywhere, we assume that all 'things' have spirit within them." [Note that the Native American we are quoting does not consider himself or his people, the Lakota, Shamanistic and they might not be if he's relying on what real Shamanism is.  But his definition here is very good for concepts that are in real Shamanism.  There is more to Shamanism than just this.  There is much more to Shamanism than what is stated in the dictionary. 

Also understand that in much of practical Shamanism, the concepts can sound very simple when a stranger comes and asks about it, but the concepts can also be things that modern day physicists understand only now.  So they are not so simple after all.  The "deity" is just the first part of what Shamanism is. 

Please keep in mind that all things in the universe are permeated and motivated by what is conceived of as Spirit.

Then there are specific types of spirits or types of things that are considered permanent; for instance  earth, wind, fire, water, air, sky, sun, and moon.  These are things that are "permanent" - always there.  They are always what they are, they never seem to grow old and die.  That's the concept.  For instance:  fire, fire is always fire; it gives and consumes, it transforms, etc.  Water is soft, yielding, enveloping, permeating, etc. Even though it's soft, water can still overpower earth and fire.  Rock is hard, silent, static and stationary. This is known through observation and you can know the spirit of these things through observation. Sure, there are exceptions to this - rock slides would show rock to be not so stationary. However, basically, these are seen as more permanent things/spirits.

There is more than one kind of observation. There is observation with the senses such as with actual practice, trial and error - how things tend to practically work; and there is observation with the heart and intuitive mind, informing us of the spirit of the things, or animals.  (It would be so much easier to explain if one could just touch the earth and know its spirit! Or breathe in the air and know not only its spirit, but it's mood. But then, you'd have to be raised to be able to do that - like Shamanistic people!) 

Then there are the spirits of things that are not so permanent, not always there, and not always the same:  like trees, or animals, including people.  When these non-permanent things die, the Spirit lives on.  How it lives on varies, just as how it lives its life can vary.  It can be reincarnated.  It can linger and be very destructive or very helpful.  What a spirit lingering on after death becomes, is not necessarily what the being was when he/she/it was alive. 

Conceiving of Shamanism as merely a trance method that is used to ward off evil spirits is incredibly naïve.  In fact, conceiving of Shamanism as a trance method to get in touch with any spirits is also naïve.  Conceiving of Shamanism as the practice of entering into a trance for ecstatic purposes is also very naïve, since there are many easier ways to have ecstasy. There are many kinds of trances and practices that a Shaman can do.  In Shamanism, they generally aren't given specific names. 

There are the real ancestors, historical tribal figures that are very real people who have done very real deeds; and there are mythical or allegorical ancestors.  Totems are of the allegorical ancestor and can usually identify the tribe or clan. For instance, the totem of most Turko-Tatar Shamanistic peoples is Borte Chino (Gray Wolf) and his wife Maral Kho'ai (Tawny Doe).  These are considered ancestors.  Obviously, these people did not evolve into human beings from a wolf mating with a doe; so there is symbolic meaning.  The Western dictionary definition: (noun: emblem consisting of an object such as an animal or plant; serves as the symbol of a family or clan.  noun:  a clan identified by their kinship to a common totemic object) is not that far off; but the definition leaves out the part where the totem actually represents an allegorical ancestor and contains a lot of abstract symbolism.  However, symbols to describe abstract things are understood fully by the tribe to be only symbols.  The language that most Shamanistic people speak is also more intuitive/symbolic than cerebral/abstract.  The things the symbols represent are often beyond words or they are many concepts synthesized into one Idea.  Also, the banner that the tribe might use might not be the same as the totem they use. 

Shamanism can be said to be using spirit ideas, based on the spirit of the thing being observed, to describe the laws of nature and how things in nature work, like cause and effect.  Their explanation for what they are doing is not like any western concept of it and due to Western concepts or paradigms, such things are often impossible to communicate.

There is no inherent or innate thing in any Shamanistic people to battle or conquer nature - as there is in ALL monotheistic people - (read this to say that Monotheistic people who create things, tend to create monotheism from their hearts and beings.)  That's a big difference! 

Animals are not viewed as lesser or more than humans. Animals are people of other tribes.  And people are animals.  That's another big difference!  This is not some dogma for Shamanistic people "concerned about the ecosystem"; they live reality that way and always did.  For instance, in order to cooperate, e.g., with a wolf, you don't "tame" it.  You get to know the wolf's culture and communicate with it. You meet it half way, person to person.  A wolf is a person, a horse is a person.  Or rather, you and the wolf and the horse are spirits that inhabit three different bodies.  You are individual spirits, but at the same time you are all one with the Great Oneness.  As such, there is no spiritual difference per se.  Spirit is Spirit, ultimately. The difference is only in the body and well, wolves and horses do not speak our language, nor we theirs.

As said previously, and contrary to the "anthropological" opinions, the many trance states that a Shaman may enter are not something that Shamanistic people do because they want ecstasy.  There are far simpler ways to get ecstasy! They do them for many and various reasons.  First of all, because it's cold where some Shamanistic people come from, there is a heat-generating thing that's done where one never has to enter a trance at all.  Tibetans call this a Yoga and it might well be a Yoga for them, but it is more like a reflex, like the diving reflex: the heart slows down and you generate internal heat and get warm - when it gets cold enough for this reflex to "turn on," it just happens.

There is a trance state where one can "make big" their consciousness and relocate their consciousness into anything, anyone or anywhere, including the "at-onement" with the Absolute. 

There is a trance state wherein you realize that "all that is" is like an illusion and that to think there is any difference between self and non-self is illusory. 

There is the trance state often done by a Shaman to guide a person dying as he is dying and after he is dead. 

There is a trance state where one can "make very small" their consciousness and relocate their consciousness inside their own body or inside another's body, example, when you are sick you make your consciousness very very small and see what's wrong with you.  You can do spiritual battle on that small level with what is invading your body (germs).  Making herbs or medicines to help with this is not part of the trance states, but trance states can inform you where to get the herbs, or which herbs to use, but not necessarily. 

There is a trance state where you get out of your body and get inside the totem and see through its eyes. 

There is a trance state where you see people as if in the "dimension" of time; you see the weave of life.  That is, you don't see solid objects in space; you see them as a weave moving through time and have to be able to distinguish their particular weave from the whole web of life.  This is often used to ward off evil spirits (whether the spirits are of dead people or living people doesn't matter) and to protect the person whose weave is being attacked (self or another). 

There is a trance state where you can make your consciousness one with your own inner flame or light and direct that flame/light.  This is done to battle on a spiritual level and can be done viewing things in a spatial way, or in a time way.

There is a trance state where you are in touch with an aspect of the Absolute that is Unbeing, Terrible, Awful, and direct that like a "wind" against an evil person spiritually attacking self or another; that is done viewing things in the time way, as a weave. 

These practices and exactly how they are done are not things that "researchers" would likely be told about.  The only word I can think of to describe how these are done and known, is not a Shamanist word at all. What they are actually doing is using Chakras to perceive these things as if through the senses.

There is also dream time, which is not the same as a trance state.  In Shamanism, dreams are real and they tell you something real.  They can be literal or symbolic.  You can direct the dream if you wish; you can wake up and then continue the dream; you can wake up and end the dream or continue the dream at a later time.  If the dream is a warning of things to come, and you later find yourself in that very situation (in the West it's called déjà vu), you can alter the outcome if you remember it from the dream. 

In the West some of these dreaming abilities are known about now and referred to as "lucid dreaming," but most Western people can not do it.  Why they can't do it is a mystery. In fact, most Western people can't even feel the centers of the body where any of these things are done - again, the only word I can come up with from another language is Chakras.

So then, if they can not do this, or any of these things, how can they possibly understand them?  They can't. These are not things that anyone can know or understand except by doing.  These things can't just be taken outside of the whole paradigm of life they are in and interpreted by people in a whole other paradigm of life who can't do these things.  These are things that can not be understood abstractly.  They have to be done, concretely.  You know by doing, just as you know what an orange tastes like by tasting an orange; there is nothing abstract about it.  When a person so far outside this cultural stream actually does even one of these things, either their perception of life itself goes through a drastic change, or they can't handle it and break down, or they become terrified of it and retreat into their churches.

As far as moral codes, ethical ideas and cultural practices go, these differ from tribe to tribe and are usually not connected to anything necessarily spiritual in any sense (except to consider that all things have Spirit).  In other words, the way people in one location do things is based on what is practical for that place.  That's more or less tribal and practical.  The way they sing or dance, their marriage or other practices, are not really connected to bonafide Spiritual ideas as they are, for instance, in the Monotheistic religions.  People from a monotheistic paradigm might interpret these things as spiritual, however.  

Shamanistic people are inwardly very nomadic, even if they aren't physically nomads, they "go with the flow" very easily.  As said above, they don't innately feel the urge to battle against the as-given things in nature or conquer them. 

In Tibet, some of these trance states are considered yogas and some of them have been given very specific names by the Tibetans.  Some of the terms fit what a Shaman does, but some do not.  Using these words these days, for Shamanistic people, is like finding words to distinguish a dog from a wolf when you didn't used to have such specific words.  For instance, if the culture always used the word "chino" to mean both dog and wolf, they might adopt brand new English words for these animals and begin using the words "dog" and "wolf."

We hope this serves to inform Native Americans (and others too, maybe) about Shamanism.