Community Building in Neo-Shamanic Subcultures

There is something wonderful going on in the Neo-Shamanic subcultures that I have noticed.  It is a repeating medicine story that goes something like this:

Somebody falls into a pocket of beauty. It changes their life in profound healing ways-so profound that they feel compelled to share the beauty they found. They start up a class. The medicine is transmitted and many benefits come out of this. People from all over the world get to meet each other and exchange ideas. Powerful containers are created for deep, transformative experiences. Most importantly, love is modeled in a larger theater, where the imprint of it can affect people’s lives and the lives that they touch in a good way forever.

However, in terms of community, there is an aspect to this story that rarely gets talked about. It goes something like this:

People go to workshops, get intensive downloads of spiritual information. When they go home, it is often to some sort of isolation, as they are not connected to other people in their area who are doing the work.  There is a reintegration period to the everyday life, which can be difficult and then a process of distilling the lessons that were learned at the workshop.

After a while a longing grows, for more information and also community. So, it becomes time to sign up for another workshop. Sometimes people go to workshops soley because they are yearning community. There they find connection again-not sustained but well needed.  The struggle with isolation goes on. Some people stay committed to their path, follow their calling and then start up a personal practice. They start to teach workshops filled with the wonderful medicine they have found. People from all over the world come to receive this medicine…and the paradigm continues.

 My Dad’s view on community is this, “No one has to build community. If you have the right people together with the right circumstances, it happens all by itself.” He grew up in the farmlands of Southern Minnesota in the 50’s and to me, his logic still makes a whole lot of sense.

Community is relationships.  Relationships are organic. They grow over time. However in today’s modern society, we do not stay still long enough to be in the same place with the same people long enough to get to know who they are. Plus, as we know, shamanism is not something everyone does. The time of the town square, where everybody comes to hang out, is over. Heck, in Seattle the time of the sidewalk bench is over, since the businesses got all concerned about not giving homeless people a place to sit.

You can hold a class but a class is not a community. You can set up a Yahoo group and even recruit 200 members but if nobody talks to each other, that’s not community either. In order to have community we have to create the circumstances that allow people to have sustained face time with each other so that relationships can build naturally. Fertile soil. The spinning sound of Spiderwoman’s web.

This is what I believe.  People need each other. Students need fellow students to be scholarly with. Students need teachers.  Teachers need students to follow their calling and to grow with. Teachers need teachers to help each other become better at what they do. The same goes for Practitioners. The community needs all of them, in good balance with each other in order to be healthy and well.

This is my vision of a thriving shamanic community.

Filling the need for community should be free. I see different kinds of open circles for folks to journey together, to drum, to make sacred music and to play. There are public ceremonies to benefit individuals and community needs. There are potlucks, storytelling sessions and sharing of shamanic poetry and art. Deep relationships that grow around these frequent gatherings support us through life’s challenges and spiritual awakenings.

There is supervision and support for teachers and practitioners. Psychologist and therapists have built in requirements in their profession for both supervision and continuing training. We don’t have that, so knowledge about key areas can be hard to get: boundary issues, projection and transference between clients and caregivers, power and ego issues, money issues. Because of confidentiality, classes and community gatherings are not the place for these people to get what they need. Being isolated as a teacher or practitioner is not only difficult but dangerous for everyone involved if they only have themselves to rely on when the going gets complicated. It is too easy for shame and blame to enter the picture when things go wrong and without a network, someone in trouble is liable to try to work it out on their own. So, we need peer circles and peer emergency healing networks for the times when we get whomped in session. We need open dialog between teachers comparing class structures and typical workshop issues.

The benefits of this vision of community are vast. There is support in the fiber of our everyday lives as shamanic people. There is more opportunity for learning, growing and applying what we learn from our teachers. There is an arena where people who are not trained can participate, have powerful experiences and find their way to teachers and healers.

 Barriers to Coming into True Community

Knowing what the barriers are to true community will help us work around them. Here are some that I see.

Scarcity perspectives around money:  What would happen if I was living paycheck to paycheck as a teacher? I may be afraid to encourage community activity because I think that it may steer ‘business’ away from me. I might not be willing to refer someone to a teacher that is more appropriate for that student than I am. The truth is that rich communities will create a nurturing flow to and from the teachers. There is enough for everyone. The more practitioners and teachers support each other rather than compete, the better exposure the whole network gets to the public. It is also an option for practitioners to hold part time or full time job.

Ingrained Hierarchy in our dominant culture. Unfortunately, as much as we may believe hierarchy is not the best model, it is still ingrained in us. We still look to authority figures to do what needs to be done and sometimes do not support non-authority people in their efforts to bring us together! Unfortunately, teachers and practitioners are busy holding space for people so they are not the ones to rely on to build our webs and till the soil in the P-patch!

Unless a teacher is consciously creating circles in order to encourage them to co-create or fly the nest, using words like community in class can create power and boundary confusions. For example: If this is a community can I disagree with my teacher in circle? Can I make contributions and/or suggestions? Communities do arise around teachers, though and there is nothing wrong with that but they are not independent. The teacher becomes the lynch pin of the community. Whether they want the power or not, they steer and shape the container just by being who they are. And if the teacher leaves, community falls apart.

 Fear around empowerment

Lots of people prefer to follow than to lead. We want things to be set up for us so we can walk in and participate when we have the time but not be expected to be anywhere consistently. This can happen for a few different reasons. Consumerism has certainly crept into our attitudes about most things that happen outside the house. But also, a lot of people just do not know what to do. Often we do not feel capable or empowered to contribute to community. We become afraid that contributing to community will become an all-consuming activity.  Lots of fears come up. I believe that in our society, choosing to be part of community is as challenging as going on a vision quest is to someone who comes from a culture where one’s identity is tied to place in community.

A solution to these things could be to verbally encourage students to create shamanic activities outside of paid events. Even allow a brainstorming session about it during class. I’ve seen this work. Sometimes people think of starting a study group or circle but don’t because they are shy and need a little boost. There might also be unfounded fear of walking on a teacher’s turf. Openly speaking to these things can bring down barriers to community.

What we need to do is teach others how to be leaders, to empower and then slowly step away. This is a process which includes instruction on how to hold a circle, group facilitation, and the skills we used to put on a public event. It is as crucial as teaching healers to do soul retreival. Granted, it is not easy to find willing students but stubborness around expecting people to shine really pays off.

Community-building needs to be a shared value.

A few motivated people cannot do this work alone. That is why unions pay their organizers. Because of this, I try to instill the big difference that small things make. Cooking for events warms the whole dynamic. Offering one’s living room for a circle can be a goddess-send to the organizer who lives in a studio apartment.  Once a structure is set up, people can come and go but the container will still be there for people to flow through. The trick, I tell people, is to only do as much as you can. Small things make a big difference.

Here is a list of suggestions that might help you jump in. You can post it on your website, send to your email list or put on your refrigerator.

  • Offer something for free. A healing drum event, a public ceremony in a public park…give a reason for people to come together.
  • Be brave, have a potluck for a bunch of shamanic people you don’t know.
  • Start a website like so local subcultures and teachers can get connected and find circles to practice in.
  • Start a circle.
  • Go to a circle, just to explore, even if you don’t know if you will go again. You are sure to run into those people again.
  • Sample a local teacher you don’t know much about.
  • Be generous.
  • Give people in your community compliments on their work. Tell them how much you appreciate what they do.
  • Gift someone something without them expecting it.
  • Let someone know that you are here for them, to do journeys or healing if they ever need you.
  • Take around flyers for the teachers that you love.
  • Send referrals to healers that you really trust.
  • Honor everyone no matter how bumpy we all may get on this wild path of introspection and healing.
  • Be brave. Reach out and make a new friend with someone you met at a circle or class.
  • Ask for help. Sharing and love is as much about receiving as it is about giving.
  • Get some training/Give some training in community organizing.
  • If you are a teacher, give your students assignments that engage them in community
    • To try out local circles
    • To practice your teachings with colleagues outside of class
    • To partner up and do something together for the broader community
    • Be clear in our classes where people can help
      • Holding and creating space
      • Seeing each other in light
    • Go out for tea with all the other practitioners in your area
      • You don’t have to be friends, you are in community. Think of the village square. You don’t pick who lives in your village – but you know them.
    • Encourage your students to hold practice circles. Give them some pointers on how to structure a circle.

Speaking of circles, there’s a lot to know about starting one so here is a little guide to help you out. It should also help members of existing circles be more present to circle dynamics.

Well, have fun and don’t forget that the land, sky, water and moon are part of your community, too. They long for us as much as we long for them.

Much love,

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