Path of the Shaman

by Peggy Andreas This is the third in a series of articles about Tribal Paths. The first is Path of the Sacred Warrior and the second is Path of the Sacred Clown. Both were recently published in this newsletter. The Path of the Sacred Warrior heals the Spirit. The Path of the Sacred Clown heals the Soul. And the Path of the Shaman heals the Body. The Body? Haven’t most of us been conditioned to believe that the Body is somehow inferior to the Spirit, to the Soul? America’s Elders—the Native Americans—have always taught that the Body, our personal connection of substance and spirit, is sacred. An ancient song of the Salish Women’s Society runs:

Who cannot love her Self cannot love anybody. Who is ashamed of her body is ashamed of all life. Who finds dirt and filth in her body is lost. Who cannot respect the gifts given even before birth Can never respect anything fully.1

A Shaman’s Path begins with her/his own Body and involves the generation, control, storage, channeling, exchange, and release of energy. Principles recently “discovered” by modern scientists have been known to Shamans since ancient times, for example: Entrainment (“If two rhythms are nearly the same and their sources are in close proximity, they will always lock up, fall into synchrony.”)2; E=mc² (the interchangability of energy and matter); and Wave/Particle Theory (Energy can travel in either waves or particles). A Shaman perceives her/his Body as a luminous cluster, a sacred act, a whirling act of power and beauty. Exploring her/his Body, the shaman becomes a specialist in vibration, harmony, and balance. Curious to bridge other dimensions, her/his awareness reaches out like a lightning rod. When that awareness is illuminated, her own Body grounds the energy and releases it into the Earth so that it does no harm. Some scientific principles have not yet caught up with shamanistic knowledge, for instances, the principle of Gravity. A modern-day Shaman puts it this way, “The earth is calling to you. It has something for you. This great creature upon which we live wishes to give you its energy to empower your life.” Westerners shun this gift. They call it GRAVITY and think it’s a force that wants to pull us down to the center of the earth. Instead, be like a tree, sinking roots down into the earth’s magnetism. Reach out with your branches and leaves for light and air from above!”3 The image of a tree is a great model for Shamans. A Tree is a very efficient energy-being. It uses every bit of energy and wastes none. The wood of a tree is a conductor of energy from both below and above; and as such, is often used by the Shaman to conduct her awareness upon journeys of discovery. A drum, made from hide stretched over wood, becomes “the shaman’s steed.” Gourds, rattles, and other rhythmic devices can also be used as energy conductors. The Shaman tunes into the rhythm and rides it to other worlds! Then the rhythm brings the Shaman back to this, her beloved Earth. “Like a living tree, the shaman is rooted deep within the earth, reaching and growing into spirit.”4 Shamans heal themselves (and serve as a healing catalyst for others) in three main ways:
  • Removing blockages in the energy flow;
  • Balancing and centering; and
  • Attunement and harmony.
Shamans are described as having keen intelligence, a perfectly supple body, and an energy that appears unbounded. Their memory and self-control are above average; and their bright eyes reveal a shy cunning. Often, their inner power advances with their age; and they display great strength, flexibility, and stamina throughout their elder years. As Old Ones (a term used with utmost respect by Native Americans), they can perform amazing acts of balance and agility. Often, they are splendid artists (especially abstract/mystical art), musicians, dancers, poets, singers, craftswomen who use their art to bring the spirit to earth. All these qualities proceed from years, even lifetimes, of suffering, sacrifice, and impeccable effort. As shamans, the women in many tribes perform in all ways that male shamans are known to. They perform healings, hunting ceremonies, vision quests and the guidance for them, acts of psychokinesis, teleportation, weather direction, and more. In the various tribes according to each one’s custom, the shaman also creates certain artifacts—clothing, baskets, ornaments, objects to be worn in pouches or under skirts or sewed into belts. She officiates at burials, births, child naming and welcoming into this world, menstrual and pregnancy rituals and rites, psychic communication, manipulation of animals, metamorphoses or transformations. The Shaman does much of this through dancing and chanting, and a large part of the method, symbols, significances, and effects of her shamanic efforts are recorded in the stories she tells, the songs she sings, and the knowledge she possesses. Much of this knowledge he/she transmits to others in ways that will be of use to them, and much of it she keeps to herself, teaches in formal settings to her apprentices, or shares with other shamans.5 Acquiring shamanic power involves a kind of death/rebirth experience. It involves letting go of the self, eliminating habits that make up the personality, dispensing with the “self-dialogue,” getting out of the way and letting the universe do the talking. When the Shaman traditionally dies to herself, she is born into the larger community of the Tribe of the Cosmos as a representative of Earth. “Essentially, a woman’s spiritual way is dependent on the kind of power she possesses, the kind of Spirit to whom she is attached, and the tribe to which she belongs. She is required to follow the lead of the Spirits and to carry out the tasks assigned her. Native American stories point to a serious event that results in the death of the protagonist, her visit to the Spirit realm from which she finally returns, transformed and powerful. After such events, she no longer belongs to her tribe or her family, but to the Spirit teacher who instructed her. This makes her seem ’strange’ to many of her folk.”6 Seeking the Body’s wisdom, a Shaman continually centers herself in her womb, her belly, or her solar plexus, NOT in her head. The lower center brings her to a better foundation from which to move. It also anchors her runaway thought processes and brings her to an attunement with the Body of the Earth. In order to use her own energy efficiently, the Shaman must become flexible, fluid. To do this, she must confront the blockages of fear stored in the Body. Her task is to melt the blocks of fear with the energy that she generates; indeed, the word “Shaman” literally means “to heat oneself.”7 As the rigid form is consumed, the flowing form is released; this is the meaning of transformation. It is a return to the liberating simplicity akin to the primal nature of wild animals, young children, and our earliest Earth-ancestresses. Freedom comes from letting go and learning to trust in one’s Body to find its own vibration, balance and harmony. I find myself happier and happier as I get older. I am simply freer of conditions. This entails making voluntary sacrifices. Sacrifice comes from the words ‘to make sacred.’ My shamanic life is a whole life of making sacred, seeing everything as sacred… Even garbage is sacred.8 The initiation of a Shaman is no easy affair. However, as one budding Shaman was told, “The most beautiful jewel is tempered in the hottest fire and dipped in the coldest water.”9 Power is strength and the ability to see yourself through your own eyes and not the eyes of another. If a person has power, as women do, and she doesn’t use it, power will sit within her and have no place to focus. It is then that power becomes twisted and evil. It can turn against the person who has called it. If a person backs away from her power (for example), she will develop back problems and all sorts of physical ailments.10 A person may be a potential Shaman if conditions such as these exist in her life: Her birth is peculiar, special in some way. Perhaps it is difficult, even traumatic. As a child, she experiences some element in her life that sets her apart from other children. She may simply be left to herself, or there may be disabilities and restrictive situations. She feels somehow different than the norm. Sometimes there are long illnesses, fevers, seizures, even brushes with death. Because of this isolation, or simply because she is gifted, she comes in touch with a subtle world that is foreign to most of her peers, and her psychic talents flourish. Importantly, she also misses out on vital portions of the acculturation process, leaving her to feel that she doesn’t quite fit in. At a certain point, the psychic energy peaks almost unbearably. If met with hostility or abuse (as usually happens in a world that lacks understanding), the potential Shaman may turn the energy in on herself, or outwards, becoming hostile and abusive to others. Some conditions such as Multiple Personalities, Mental Retardation, Dyslexia, Sexual Disorientation, Hallucinations, Hebephrenia, Schizophrenia, and Delusions can be the result of this “twisting” of the psychic flow. Sociopathic or psychopathic behavior, addictions, behaving in a such manner that one is literally “crossed-off” by society—all these can become the path that leads to the shamanic initiatory crisis. This is not to say that an initiate cannot receive help. If she is sincere in her desire for healing, she will find the proper catalysts and midwives for birthing the Shaman in herself. In the ancient tribal ways, she could find an experienced Shaman in her own community to explain what was happening to her, and ease her way a bit. This older, wiser one would give her exercises that would train her to control the degree and timing of “opening the flower of her awareness.”11 These might include instructions in meditation, lucid dreaming, self-hypnosis and visualization, recognizing energy fields, practices with sound and color, ritual-making, sand-painting, crafts of various kinds, trance-dancing, etc. She would also be taught how to protect herself from unwanted psychic and physical intrusions. Techniques such as purifying, blessing, boundary-making, shield-making, and acquiring guardian allies would be part of such instruction. Grounding techniques would be stressed as the initiate worked with plant, animal, and rock medicine. In modern times, however, the help may come from strange directions, indeed. For example, the contemporary Plains Indian Shaman, Tayja Wiger, was born into an extremely hostile, abusive urban environment with no exposure to tribal ways. Society called her blind, crippled, retarded, insane and delinquent. She was institutionalized in reform schools and mental institutions. All this time, she prayed for healing. The psychiatrists didn’t understand her Shamanic tradition (which she often expressed subconsciously), but they did help her to find the time, space and resources that she needed for her to be able to heal herself. Her intense focus on self-healing propelled her through the dark tunnel of fear and anger to a place where she could let go, in love, trusting the Universe. Now, she is sighted, physically sound, intelligent, sane and working as a Shaman; “healer, ordained minister, counselor and laughing friend of the Light.”12 Her story is an inspiration to us all! Tribal people believe that becoming a Shaman is a matter of destiny; and that if a destined person resists becoming a Shaman, she will become more and more immeshed in her own problems. The story of Sky Woman, a Shaman of the Ojibway Tribe, illustrates how a womon who courageously responded to a crisis embraced her own shamanic destiny. Born into a family that was disturbed by violent parental disagreements, Sky Woman fled from this chaotic situation at 9 years of age and wandered in the northern woods for a long time until a search party found her. Among her rescuers was an old woman who loved her and took care of her, and became her adopted grandmother. They lived together happily for many years until one day, the Grandmother got very sick. Sky Woman was afraid. While she took care of her Grandmother and watched over her, Sky Woman fell asleep and had a dream. She dreamed someone gave her a rattle and other things Shamans use when they heal, and said to her, “Try this on your grandmother. She might get better.” When she awoke, Sky Woman made a little rattle and started to do the things the dream showed her. When she finished, the old women seemed brighter. Sky woman kept on with her work until her grandmother was up and around. Then, other people heard about her and came to her for help. She became a travelling healer.13 Following her inner guidance, Sky Woman later remembered that in her youthful wanderings, she had been guided and instructed by her Guardian Spirits for her life’s work. Her loving compassion for her Grandmother was what catalyzed her own transformation. Her Spirits guided her but SHE CHOSE OF HER OWN FREE WILL to follow them. Modern-day Shamans have learned from the mistakes that Shamans of the past have made. Keeping what works, they’ve thrown the rest away. They have let go of arrogance and embraced simplicity. They are not afraid to frolic and have fun. They have made a commitment to serve the life-force; they draw strength and unity from that commitment. It has been said that the first Shaman was Grandmother Fire. She is the true ancestress of all Shamans. It also has been said that the first Shaman invented sex. The Shaman is self-erotic, in love with her own Body and with the Body of Earth. She heats herself, burning off the dross, centering herself in her own luminosity. She radiates well-being and self-confidence. Her leadership emerges out of a passion for life and is sustained by balance. The Shaman’s heat is a centerfire around which a community naturally gathers. Her heat is engendering; and her own gender can hold and transcend the tension of opposites, giving her the ability to operate with success in whatever world she finds herself. Just by being, a Shaman gives comfort by proving that change is possible. Healers state that it is love that heals, yet it is so difficult for many to release the fear and anger that lodge in the subconscious mind in order to be able to ACCEPT that love. Now it is time for all of us to cleanse our lives, then turn ourselves inside out for all to share.14 Love is a word for transformation. And there are many beings worthy of our love. It does not have to be a man you seek. When you say, ‘I love you,’ you are saying, ‘I transform you.’ But since you alone can transform no one, what you are really saying is, ‘I transform myself and my vision.’ I am always living in the lodge of love and I share it with you.15 Footnotes
  • Daughters of Copper Woman by Anne Cameron, 1981, Press Gang Publishers, Vancouver, BC, p. 62.
  • Planet Drum by Mickey Hart and Frederic Lieberman, 1991, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, p. 17.
  • Movements of Magic by Bob Klein, 1984, Newcastle Publishing, CA, pg. 8.
  • In the Shadow of the Shaman by Amber Wolfe, 1989, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, p. xiii.
  • The Sacred Hoop by Paula Gunn Allen, 1986, Beacon Press, Boston, MS, p. 207-8.
  • Ibid., p. 257.
  • Shamanic Voices by Joan Halifax, 1979, E.P. Dutton, N.Y., p.3.
  • Ruth Inge-Heinze, in Shapeshifters: Shamanic Women in Contemporary Society, 1987, Viking Penguin Inc., N.Y., p. 62.
  • Leilah Tiesh in Shapeshifters, p. 36.
  • Agnes Whistling Elk in Flight of the Seventh Moon by Lynn V. Andrews, 1984, Harper & Row, San Francisco, p. 130-131.
  • Channeled from my Spirit Teacher, “Butterfly Woman”.
  • Birth of a Modern Shaman by Cynthia Bend and Tayja Wiger, 1987, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, p. 8.
  • The Shaman: Patterns of Siberian and Ojibway Healing by John A. Grim, 1983, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, p. 121-125.
  • Bend and Wiger, p. 6.
  • Agnes Whistling Elk, in Flight of the Seventh Moon, p. 156.