The first draft of this article was originally rejected by the Society for Shamanic Studies in 2011. After working with an encouraging editor to tone down the intensity, their committee eventually decided that it still wouldn’t work for them.
I went on to work with Peter Clark at “All Things Healing” to break it into a three-part series and make it more palatable for an online audience. Their publishing site has gone down, so here is another draft, updated for our times.
Blessing on your path.
I stand beneath the sacred redwood trees
and the power of the ancients nourish me.
I am touched by the precious kiss of mother earth,
I hear the raspy caw of the raven and I know,
I do not need to search for heaven.
I stand before an ocean, rising and falling with plastic with her swells.
Oil slicks drift into the wild.
I look at this and I am sure
that I do not create my own reality,
Rather, we co-create it.
It is no secret that the world is out of balance. There are dams that kill the salmon, clear-cuts that muddy the rivers, over-spending on military that leaves naught for our disadvantaged. There is anorexia, drug addiction, domestic violence, xenophobia and the lack of working class job. The list goes on as you know.
This situation is so commonly known that it has become easy to accept as normal. It tempting to block out these realities and focus only on the good and healing, the ‘love and light’, even though we know in our hearts that we cannot get away. We know it. We know that we cannot get away because everything is interconnected.
As Shamanic practitioners, our foremost responsibilities are to restore harmony and to serve our communities. We specialize in accessing the other-realms in order to find healing for the sick. We have devoted ourselves to our relationships with our spirit friends so that we may bring our clients’ lives back into balance. But what is our part in helping the global effort to restore harmony on the broader scale? How do we open ourselves to do the work without becoming overwhelmed or thrown into despair?
“It is too overwhelming”, I have heard some say. “It is depressing.”
“My empathic nature cannot handle the truths out there.”
In a discipline where we specialize in spiritual solutions, we can get grounded enough to protect ourselves and hold presence for what is going on. Granted, we can’t watch the news every day without some impact on our well-being buy we must find balance there too. Just enough and we may find that our emotional reactions are a great source of inspiration.
In order to help out, we must understand that we are not alone in the mission to bring the planet back into balance. Hand our despair the truth card, which us that there are millions of people who are working towards this end. They know that the only way things change on a global level is when we dig in, reach out for each other and keep moving. As shamanic people, we have a place in that, and it has to do with a lot more than prayer or individual healing. We need an agenda to spiritually address these global monstrosities. And I’ll betchya, knowing our place in the collective is going to be more fun than we might think.
There are organic food farmers, fair trade merchants, tireless community organizers and patient, patient teachers. There are prolific advocates and strong activists, innovative scientists who work on renewable energy projects and brave whistleblowers. Look at this wonderful list! There are progressive songwriters to encourage us and soothe our sorrows. There are documentary filmmakers, independent journalists, impassioned writers and dedicated fathers, in touch with their feelings. There are powerful, brilliant, creative people, inspired and gorgeously diverse.
This vast web of people who hone their passions and abilities create an interlocking pattern of energetic change across the planet. Each role is as crucial as the other, and when we step back to look at the whole, a song emanates from all the activity.
As Shamanic practitioners, our work is a reflection of these movers, changers and growers but on the spiritual plane. What we do there affects what happens here. What happens here affects all other realities. So, should we be down in the protest plaza or in the sacred circle? Or both? For each of us, the answer lies where our individual passions are kindled.
We already know from our inner work that we can’t remain idle on a path towards passion, even if it seems that we must pass impenetrable boundaries. Our initiations have taught us that. It is really a matter of life or death. So what do we do? The answer is found in the songs and the patterns. Follow me here. I want to show you something. We are going to use our shamanic gifts to look together, to listen and watch, to learn and then finally to vision together.
Let’s go back to the web of changers and widen our visual scope to encompass all aspects of society. Now we can see many more patterns, hear more songs as well. There are healing songs and there are songs of sorrow. There are entrancing, manipulative songs and there are songs of hunger. There are symphonies and clashing chords, the music of brooks and pebbles falling off a mountain. Here we can sense the shape of things. We can glean the nature of the forces that want to turn all of Mother Nature’s gifts into money. We begin to understand the mechanism of how these forces take our own individual talents, passions and desires and turn them into tools for their gain.
Looking is not easy. It can be overwhelming, but it is a crucial step to applying our skills to these big world problems. To open ourselves and be present with such powerful energy systems at work, all we have to do is use the same technique we use with our clients: shields up, open heart, keen senses and compassion. At first, our intention is only to gather information. The following stage is to use that information to figure out what to do. Knowledge becomes power so that we can shift from a practice of seeing to one of envisioning, or ‘using our vision’.
Vision is not a passive thing to a shamanic practitioner. Vision is a powerful tool which we use for healing. With these tools, we can project a vision of a new future. We hold in our heart-gaze, with unconditional love, people from all walks of life and all situations. Our ability to track energy and see how energetic things function allows us to discover what remedies may offset some of the destructive forces around us.
In order to be part of the stunning web of changers, we need to hold our vision wide. We need to open ourselves and practice the power of witnessing the calamities and genocides so that the suffering do not suffer even more from spiritual isolation. We cannot turn our presence away from them. We also need to learn from what is happening around us.
Let’s turn our shamanic gaze to peer into several interactive systems that are hindering our collective health as a planet. From this we may glean some solutions together. We will start by observing the difference between culture created by people and culture manufactured by corporations. Their patterns are different, as well as their manifestations and goals.
Corporate Culture, Organic Culture
Culture is the unseen stuff that happens when we people spend a lot of time together: our art, our ways of being and our customs. It is the intangibility of a people. It reflects shared values. Culture is powerful and alive, even more powerful than we think because much of it is silent and unseen. Culture can bring joy and close relationships, or silently support oppression. Culture also comes from the shape and natural aspects of the land a people lives upon. The sounds, colors, rhythms and sweetness all express the creatures and plants that we are in relationship with every day.
What happens when we lose our relationship with the land? What happens when many of us don’t stay in one city long enough for it to feel like home? When people value the monetary value that they can get from the land more than the land itself? When we look around, organic culture has been greatly lost in commercialized areas. Much of what we see that is called culture is actually manufactured by corporations.
Corporate advertising creates and perpetuates harmful stereotypes by telling us how we need to look and behave in order to be perceived as attractive or successful. The songs of marketing are all around us. Everywhere we look, someone in some way is trying to convince us to give them our money. We yearn for and wonder how to find our way back to it.
It used to be that the moment some new talent brought his music or art forth for us to share, the corporations would come in and commoditize it, so quickly that it lost its medicine. Now we live in a time where young people, instead of creating new, regurgitate music and art of the past, mixed in with the values of corporations.
“It is what it is,” we say.
We live in a driven, name brand, obsessive, addictive society and as shamanic people we can never, never forget this. We must stay awake. There is only one root value to every expression of corporate culture: financial gain. The myriad ways that corporations try to get money are a myriad of spells that we have to become callous about, but certainly not immune to. We must be acutely aware of how these spells work.
Let’s track it and see it. There is a predictable pattern which has its own song. In our shamanic terminology, we would call it an enchantment spell that has been used over and over, and this is how it works:
- Put someone into a trance with enticing images. (Our guard comes down.)
- Invoke a strong emotion of desire or self-deprecation which creates a need and then,
- Associate that emotion with a product. A logo.
- The logo becomes deeply seated in our psyche and can be used in the future to invoke the spell again and again.
It’s a curse, really. A simple one, greatly overused but very effective through sheer repetition. It doesn’t matter to the corporate marketing machine if we are convinced to buy out of desire or spiritual hunger or shame of one’s own body. It doesn’t matter to the corporations if we are buying products that are created in a way that supports war or if we are buying things we don’t need. All that matters, is that we open our wallets. The methods that are used to persuade us are clear misuses of spiritual power. There are energy patterns in every aspect of corporate culture that insert thought-forms of helplessness, fear, low self-esteem and desire for things that are not healthy. These, we know, are intrusions and enchantments.
As shamanic people, we can help our communities disentangle from these curses. Firstly, we call on our shamanic allies to help us unwind these messages in ourselves and then we find methods that will help our students do the same. Things like, journeying for techniques and ceremonies to help us to maintain our self-esteem and find a positive body image.
We can give workshops exploring our use of media, its value vs. tricks, allowing people to discover their own relationship to the TV shows they are hooked on. We can join with the current movement of storytellers in bringing back its ancient human past-time instead.
We can journey together to see more clearly the different ways that corporate culture encourages addiction. We can look at the energetic nature of social media and how to use it as a tool rather than let it use and rob us of our free time. We can also assist our students in gaining tools to find clear separation from energies they do not want to align with. Together, we can create a movement a movement to unravel these curses, find harmony and weave new songs together.
This is the work that the marvelous web of changers is doing on the physical plane. We can take our intentions and consciousness to do the same work with our shamanic ways.
Bringing Shamanism to Work
In keeping with the participation as global spiritual citizens, who keep our awareness open to encompass both the heartbreaks and marvels of our society, we need to allow our students to process what their work cultures are doing to them.
Many people work in toxic or dysfunctional environments where it can feel next to impossible to maintain a sense of groundedness and connection. Instead of allowing our students to hold an escapist framework toward spiritual activities, we can allow a place in our circles for honest talk about on-the-job issues. We can talk and journey to identify the energy signature of our work environments and then find practical ways to create separation from it. Or perhaps find a subtle song that can begin to shift it in some positive way.
Corporate work culture can be so overwhelming that it is important to teach and discover forms of protection in environments where we do not have very much power. There are many different kinds of ‘hidden altars’ and protective fields that can be put up, without interfering with our colleagues’ personal space. Talismans that bring our beloved world view with us throughout the day can soften the blows enough to make the day manageable.
I hope I am inspiring you to find some new ways of serving the community. In shamanic journeys, we tap into our personal medicine. We let out our power songs. We witness each other. We ‘see’ each other with our strong vision and we are able to stay aligned when we go back to work.
Shamanic Teaching Structures and their Effect on Diversity and Community
It is important, in any community, to be able to have discourse about the ways we have collectively chosen to do what we do. Industrialized society has near killed organic community. There are few public squares or gathering spots that do not cost money. More people live alone than ever. The family system has greatly fallen apart. Spiritual students crave community so much that they are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to fly to another city and take a class they have already taken and don’t really need, because they are lonely for human contact with others that share the same values.
In order to maintain integrity and care for our communities, we need to keep our eyes on how people come together and why they go away. Do people feel welcome? Is this community or class, really? Do we know what healthy community is? What patterns do we notice happening again and again? Are they working – not just for the health of the teaching organizations but for our students once they leave us and go on with their lives?
Let’s use our special vision to look at the structures we create for our spiritual classes. The most prevalent structure being used in many spiritual offerings for advanced training is based on week-long workshops and 2-3 year apprenticeships. Though the intensity of these classes is important, their format creates an economic barrier to receiving shamanic initiation. Realistically, most people either cannot afford to go or can afford it but don’t have enough vacation time to spare. Not only does this structure limit the student pool to the upper-middle class and rich, it limits the diversity of expression and experiences that are shared in the classroom.
When students come from around the world to meet, vital connections are made and still there is not enough time to truly birth community. Deep community is what happens when people live and love and grow together. When they stay together long enough to run into conflict and then pass through it. It requires locality and stick-to-it-ness. Alongside with our craving for community there is a fear of it, as well as over-idealized notions of what community might be. So, we can see there is a lot of sticking around we need to do in order to feed our hunger, get through these issues, and find each other.
Spirit does not discriminate when it chooses a shaman. The call will strike anyone from any country, race, economic class, gender or sexual preference. Therefore, knowing that teachers are scarce, we need to find ways to allow low-income apprentices to work with us. When we look at what happens when someone gifted misuses their power, we must admit that to not teach a power-filled apprentice poses a danger to that person and everyone around them.
These are some problems we have seen. It will be fun to dream up new structures and try them out. If the shamanic role is to serve and tend community, then it becomes important to find ways to offer gatherings for free. Or at least next to free. I’ve seen one model in which there is no charge for classes. They are considered ‘priceless’. Each student decides what form they wish to return the energy of teaching back to the world. They can give time, service, money or gifts. They can give to anyone they please.
In Seattle, I ran Spirit Jams for almost ten years. They were open to everyone: African drummers, ecstatic dancers, spiritual seekers and practitioners of many different modalities. People came with their djembes, frame drums, rattles, didgeridoos, Native American flutes, and we all had a great time. There was singing allowed with no words so no one person’s spiritual orientation would impress upon another’s. In the summers, I organized open public ceremonies in the parks. These were free, and like the Spirit Jams, structured to be simple enough that anyone can participate at the level they need to. At these events, there were always flyers for Shamanic Journey workshops, which were short and cheap, to allow anyone to meet the basic prerequisite for local journey circles. The deeper journey courses met once a week for 8 weeks. In such an experience, there was time for the opening of an intimate space where people could practice and share more profoundly.
The free events were regular enough that people came to expect them. A core group evolved, and friendships were being made just because an arena had been created for people to commune. Making them open to everyone engaged the broader alternative spiritual community. We joined hands with light workers, shamanic practitioners, pagans, yoga teachers, environmentalists, Buddhists, midwives and sexual healers, therapists and activists and sound healers. We shared our gifts and held each other in light.
I am not offering a single solution but rather an experience and social experiment to share with you. This sacred circle eventually did run its course, partially because all things come to an end but there also because I gave too much and became out of balance with myself. There were ceremonies filled with many volunteers and a lot of beautiful power and joy and there were other times when I just gave and gave and went home tired. It was not ok for me to continue when I was tired. I hope that you can learn from my lessons about the necessity of energy exchange. The work of bringing balance must fore-mostly happen at home before it works on a broader scale.
I do find great joy in the knowledge that many lasting friendships were forged through the space that we created together. Community is not being in the same room together for a short amount of time and never seeing one another again. Community is all about relationships, with the thrills and the difficulties, the frustrations and discoveries. It is memories shared and stories told.
Part-time and Full-time Spiritual Practice Structures
Another structure, which is comes right from our over-culture, is the notion that one must make a living from what one is passionate about in order to be taken seriously. However, anthropologists have taught us that traditionally, most shamans do not work full-time. They work the everyday tasks of surviving with everyone else and do their healing in their off time. Modern experiences of being a part-time or a full-time practitioner hold separate challenges that we can observe.
On one hand, it is difficult to carve out the time to maintain consistent deep sacred space when holding a full-time job. It is also a challenge to keep one’s own system clear when spending our days in a work environment that may not be healthy. What is nice though, is avoiding the potential stress of being an entrepreneur. It’s also nice to have health benefits and paid time off in order to relax. Relaxing enhances our spiritual path.
On the other hand, depending solely upon shamanic services to pay the bills can create a dangerous equation, where primal needs for food, shelter and clothing are dependent on client and student numbers. This can create subtle compromises that might not even be a consideration if basic needs were already taken care of. Working full-time as a practitioner can be nice because allows us to have more control over the environments we live in. We are shielded from the realities that the many people who come to us live with every day. This is a blessing and at the same time it can create a gap of misunderstanding – even an unrealistic expectation from the shamanic healer that people should be able to navigate dysfunctional environments with more ease than is realistically possible.
We need to be realistic about what we are up against, create honest dialogues about these elements and support each other in our journeys to strengthen our healing structures.
Commoditization of Our Sacred Spaces
Continuing our envisioning work, what is the shape and song of consumerism when it enters our sacred spaces? This is a useful thing to journey on. Here are some affectations that I have noticed when the consumerist mindset seeps into our work.
People start taking classes faster than they can digest the material. It can be tempting for someone to pay for classes out of an underlying sense of loneliness or need for personal healing that is not being dealt with. It also can be tempting to rack up a resume of training with known teachers in order to earn some sort of respect. But taking many classes in succession is counter-productive, as no one can push the river when accessing wisdom. Growing takes time. There’s no way around it. When we look at the broader pattern of consumerism, these activities are understandable: there is an awful lot of outside pressure to fill empty holes in our lives with purchasing. Sadly, when this happens, shamanism becomes a commodity and it has lost its power.
As teachers, how can we encourage our students to stick with the inner path and not jump too far ahead? How does a full-time teacher’s need for sustenance compromise their ability to be discerning about who may or may not be ready for an advanced class? What is ‘advanced’; how is it defined? These are difficult questions which have many diverse answers depending upon the teacher and the class, but nonetheless they are important questions to ask.
Genuine Relationships and Marketing
Then there is marketing. In traditional cultures, people knew who the good healers were based upon reputation. Word naturally got out through local relationships. This still can happen, but in urban areas, strong networks might not be there. In response, some practitioners use the mainstream model of heavy marketing, using the same tactics described earlier in this article and resume posting. What does an emphasis on resume building do to the practice itself? Where is the line between getting the word out, giving our background and boasting, which diminishes the integrity of our work? Putting too high a value on who one studied with and from which country can overlook the power and truth of one’s relationships with the spirit teachers. At the same time, it can be risky looking for a good healer. How can potential clients find out about who we are?
People come together based on relationships, trust. If we can create spaces that nurture these things, then students will naturally come our way. There is a place for journey circles and public ceremonies and there is a place for formal training. Ideally, all these activities feed each other.
Shamanism means that we walk the sacred Wheel of Life. We have learned to love and respect every part of it, rather than only the highs and lows that modern media wants us to thrive upon. Our presence in people’s lives brings attention and honor to the ‘almost’ places, the juicy in-between places, the trudging-up-the-hill times, the relieving fall into the process of death when death is due, the wonder of the unknown. This is true journey. We who are seasoned in the ways of journey offer this as our gift to the world. When we place our knowledge of the Wheel besides the mental construct of corporate culture, our work in the broader network of changers is clear to see.
Our lives are dedicated to sharing, tending and building rather than consuming, glamorizing or competing. Our power is in self-love and nourishing pride, not in participating in a system built upon greed or the preying on the shame and weaknesses of others. We hear the cries and dreams our activist friends put forth: from alternative energy sources to banishing corporate campaign contributions, from labeling genetically modified food to universal health care.
We know the power of dreaming too. We can help hold up the collective dreams of all of us. The time of the charismatic leader is over. We connect, we pray and we sing the global healing song.
I stand in shamanic circle
aware that people here come from the same land as me
where isolation is more common than communion.
I honor the courage it took
for them to show up.
As we drum, we sing.
We open and the dance begins.
I hear a chorus under the drums
coming from the great, compassionate spirits.