What Is Shamanism?

Awakening to the Spirit World: The Shamanic Path of Direct Revelation - Sandra Ingerman MA, Hank Wesselman Ph.D. 2010

What Is Shamanism?


Shamanism is the most ancient spiritual practice known to humankind and is the “ancestor” of all our modern religions. As a method, it is a form of meditation combined with a focused intention to accomplish various things, as will become apparent in this book. As a spiritual practice, shamanism can become a way of life that may utterly transform the one who practices it.

The word “shaman” comes from the language of the Evenki peoples, a Tungusic tribe in Siberia. This is a word whose meaning has to do with esoteric knowledge and extraordinary spiritual abilities and as such a shaman is often defined as an intermediary between the human and the spirit worlds. In shamanic cultures, the word “shaman” has come to mean “the one who sees in the dark” or “the one who knows.”

Most of what we know about the ancient practice of shamanism comes from ethnographic fieldwork done among the tribal peoples of Siberia, Asia, Africa, Australia, Greenland, from North, Central, and South America, and from cultures of northern Europe such as the Saami of Lapland. The existence of technical papers, monographs, and books about shamanism is only expanding, but suffice it to say that we have come to know that the shaman is a universal figure found in virtually all the world’s cultures.

There are certain commonalities in a shaman’s worldview and practice across the world that allow us to make certain broad generalizations about shamanism. In the majority of indigenous cultures, the universe is viewed as being made up of two distinct realms: a world of things seen and a world of things hidden, yet no distinction is drawn between them. A shaman understands that these two worlds present themselves together as two halves of a whole. The shaman is the inspired visionary, a man or a woman who learns through practice how to enter into this “world of things hidden,” and once there, he or she typically encounters extra-mundane personalities or archetypal forces that the indigenous peoples refer to as spirits, ancestors, and even gods.

All true shamans—and by association all authentic modern visionaries—discover, often by accident, that they possess the ability to go into trance very easily, which allows them to make contact with this hidden world. Trance in this sense is not an unconscious state, but rather a state of expanded consciousness in which the individual intentionally dissociates his or her focused awareness away from the everyday world and enters into an alternate or parallel reality that indigenous peoples regard as “the spirit world.”

Through practice, shamans develop relationships with these spirits, allowing them to do various things, initially on behalf of themselves, and then increasingly on behalf of others. What sorts of things?

For example, a shaman may help restore power and focus to a person who has experienced a traumatic loss experience. Shamans may extract spiritual blockages from the body that can manifest as a physical or emotional illness. A shaman may engage in healing work at various levels—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—and he or she may be able to access information from “the other side” through enhanced powers of intuition, a practice known as divination. Some shamans are also gifted in their ability to guide the souls of the dead to where they are supposed to go in the afterlife through psychopomp work. Some are even accomplished at reweaving and restoring the fabric of a person’s damaged soul through the practice of soul retrieval.

Alberto Villoldo, a medical anthropologist of Cuban ancestry who has spent much of his life living with and studying with the indigenous peoples of the Andes, emphasizes the fluidity a shaman has between the human and the spirit worlds. He points out how much of the modern world dismisses the existence of these other realms:

The shaman is one who mediates between the visible world of form and matter and the invisible world of energy and spirits. For the shaman there is no supernatural world. Only the natural world exists, with its visible and invisible dimensions. In the last century, science has dismissed the mysterious world of the ancients. Scanning electron microscopes allow us to peer deeply into the heart of matter, and invisible “spirits” have been catalogued as merely microbes. Space telescopes show us that beyond the blue sky there is no Heaven, only the vast darkness of space.

The quest for a single explanation that could unite all the observed forces at play in our universe left the arena of religion and spirituality behind and has become the search for the Unified Field Theory. Today, many of us who study shamanism feel compelled to describe our art and practice using the language of quantum physics in an attempt to give the shamanic arts more credibility. I believe that doing so actually devalues the 50,000-plus-year tradition of shamanism.

On the contrary, we are noticing that although science is often used to describe certain “otherwordly” phenomena, the practice of shamanism is ever so slowly working its way toward the mainstream. Carol Proudfoot-Edgar, a shamanic practitioner of Native American ancestry who has walked the path for more than two decades, has noticed that shamanism is growing in popularity:

When I began teaching shamanism in 1989, shamanic practice was a relatively new concept to most of those I encountered in my workshops. Twenty years later, it is rare for me to meet someone who has not heard the term “shamanism.” Of course, I tend to encounter only a select group of the population, but this marks quite a change in the collective consciousness.

Shamanism is part of the popular culture. There is a surfeit of material available on the subject. Novels with a shamanic focus have become bestsellers, and television features more and more programs with an altered-reality theme. Medical school programs provide courses on what is called alternative or complementary healing: these courses usually have components on shamanism. This change has happened so fast that it is hard to remember that looking at the universe from an alternative point of view wasn’t as popular in recent history.

I find this transformation of shamanism from an esoteric to an accepted source of wisdom to be true no matter where I travel in the world. My dreams inform me that we are gathering wisdom in various forms in order to co-create the next reality, the next stage of planetary evolution. We don’t know yet what paradigm or what visions will be decisive in this evolutionary process, but we do know that the practice of shamanism will offer us essential understandings by which to guide our actions.


Shamanism is the first spiritual practice of humankind and dates back tens of thousands of years. The fact that this spiritual practice of working in relationship and in partnership with the helping spirits is being widely used today speaks to the potency of the work. Alberto Villoldo, who has long studied the origins of shamanism, says that a lot of what we know comes from human excavation:

Among the early evidence we have of shamanic practices is an elaborate Neanderthal burial found at a cave at Shanidar, in the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Here a male in his late thirties was interred in a fetal position more than 60,000 years ago, his body deliberately covered with flowers. Many of these plants, including yarrow, cornflower, St. Barnaby’s thistle, grape hyacinth, and woody horsetail, are known to have medicinal properties. So even prior to the appearance of modern humans (Homo sapiens) shamanic practices seem to have existed.

Hank Wesselman, who has conducted excavations as a paleoanthropologist in Ethiopia, notes that we have been able to discern a lot of detail about ancient shamanic practices from archeological finds. From his ongoing research within the field of human evolution, he has been able to track shamanic burial traditions:

There actually exists an even earlier mortuary practice that was revealed in the recovery of a fossilized human skull more than 165,000 years old from the Middle Awash region of northern Ethiopia, a modern Homo sapiens cranium (with some residual archaic features from our more primitive forebears) that reveals the distinctive patina and polishing of the bone surface associated with ongoing human care and handling over long periods of time. This scientific evidence, without doubt, exhibits a reverence for the dead that has obviously been part of human prehistory for a very long time.

Although there must have been a great deal of ritual in ancient shamanism, Alberto Villoldo points out that it is important to note that shamanism is not so much a religion as a spiritual path. There is a difference. He also notes that a shaman is much more than a mystic. He writes:

Spiritual practices are based on personal, direct experience and are replicable by others who choose to undergo the practices and initiations. Religion, on the other hand, is based on belief. My teacher, an old Indian man from the high Andes, once said to me as we were walking the edge of Lake Titicaca, the Sea on Top of the World: “Religions are simple concepts of spirituality: values, standards, truths, principles communicated in the form of a story that uses poetry and metaphor to illustrate its wisdom.” These stories have been told and retold until even their embellishments acquire profound meaning and the figurative is taken literally and the lessons are lost. And my friends, the priests, were devoted caretakers of a story that was not their own.

But the shaman is the author of the story, the mythmaker. El Viejo’s (my teacher’s) faith was based on his own experience of the divine in Nature. A shaman stands with one foot in this world and one foot in the world of spirit. With the priests and in the schools, I learned the lessons of others. With El Viejo, I learned my own lessons.

El Viejo showed me that the consciousness that creates our waking reality is a universal consciousness, a vast sea that is navigable. Most people are content to live on the land and they know this sea only as it appears to them from their own shores. But it is possible to know it fully, to navigate the sea, to cross it, to immerse yourself, to let it wash over you, to discover its depths. The shaman is one who has learned how to swim and how to sail, how to navigate through this sea and return to its shore. And to communicate its wonders to his people.1

Shamanic training often follows the path known to the Greeks of old as the “journey of the wounded healer,” during which the shaman developed his or her powers and abilities as they self-healed. I believe that it is essential to heal yourself before you start ministering to others. But the shaman is different from the mystic, who can also go through a process of healing and discovery of the invisible world of energy and spirits. The shaman is dedicated to service to his or her community, whereas the mystic is dedicated to dwelling on their experience of the divine.

My teacher believed that the new shamans, the new caretakers of the Earth, would come from the West. “The Indios (indigenous people) do not have the power and stamina to hold the world in their prayers anymore,” he once said to me. “Many of our peoples have lost their souls. The hope lies with you and your children.”

Shamanism, although it may contain ritual and elements of ritual, is therefore not a religion per se. And although both the practice and the study of shamanism is growing in popularity, there also remains a lot of confusion in the Western world between the kind of work done by shamans and the work done by a “medicine man” or “medicine woman.” This blurring of terms exists because every shaman is a medicine person but not all medicine people are shamans. In fact, most medicine people are not shamans but fulfill social roles more like those of priests in our stratified religious complexes in that they function primarily as ritual or ceremonial leaders. A Plains Indian medicine woman, for example, may perform ceremonies or healing work through her knowledge of medicinal plants, but she does her main work here in the world of things seen.

The distinguishing feature of shamanism versus other spiritual practices is that shamans do their main work in the spirit world where they may accomplish various things through their relationships with their helping spirits. Shamanism, correctly understood, is about working with those transpersonal forces we call spirits. Sanctified by their initiations and furnished with their guardian spirits, the shaman alone is empowered to venture into the mystical geography of “the world of things hidden.”


Even though a shaman is not the same as a sorcerer, the work of a shaman is not always an altruistic practice. José Stevens has studied for more than a decade with the shamans of the Huichol Indians in central Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. As one who walks the shamanic path and who also works with the corporate world, he has seen the darker or shadow side of shamanism first-hand:

There are many so-called shamans or their equivalents who engage in sorcery, fight with other shamans, and are rather dangerous individuals who will do harm to others for hire. Shamanism is not all love and light, and anyone who has spent time in indigenous communities where shamanism is practiced knows this fact. They also know that all shamans are not equal in terms of their values or their skills, and these differences are what distinguish a great shaman from a mediocre one.

Sandra Ingerman, who has been working to bridge the ancient healing tradition of shamanism into modern-day culture, stresses how crucial it is to self-reflect and acknowledge the darker side of shamanism:

It is important to address the shadow side of shamanism, for with any practice that works with the principle of power there will be those who abuse the power. You can see this in many areas of life, not just with shamanism.

To avoid falling into the trap of using shamanism to manipulate others and life, it is important to do your personal work. Many people who engage in spiritual practices think they can avoid looking at how their ego and emotions influence their life.

In my writing and teaching I encourage people to address and work with their emotions and also to take care of their physical body. As we engage in spiritual work we must balance our efforts with all aspects of ourselves— body, mind, and spirit. My desire as a woman and as one who has dedicated her life to being in service to the planet is to communicate shamanic principles to the general population. For one, the feminine principle of the visionary steers us away from seeing the practice as a series of techniques and methods to seeing shamanism as a way of life in which we honor and respect the spirit that lives in all things. This way considers how you live to be more important than what you do. This also embraces a way where you continue to be in awe and wonder for the life-giving power of earth, air, water, sun, and the beauty of who you are as well as the nature of life that surrounds you.

This includes the principle of experiencing “power with” versus “power over.” We do have to address the issue of the shadow side of shamanism to be truthful about the work. And at the same time our focus is on how you can use the practice of shamanism to live your life from your highest potential. And that includes how to enjoy yourself.

When we continue to work on our egoic and emotional states, we can stand strong in our integrity and work from a place of love, compassion, and wisdom versus using manipulation to get what we want. In this way we can truly walk the path of a shaman who works with the forces of the universe in order to create positive change on the planet.


José Stevens emphasizes the importance of having the solid personal foundation of an authentically initiated visionary in order to be of service to one’s self and one’s community. Here he outlines three ingredients, or visionary values, that characterize a true shaman:

All shamans work with spiritual allies in order to suspend or alter the world of ordinary reality to achieve specific goals. However, a person’s motivations are the key to what type of shaman he or she may be—a dangerous one to be avoided or a wonderful enlightened teacher who is a true healer.

A shaman’s effectiveness depends on three key ingredients: perception, values, and maturity. Once you understand these three interrelated ingredients, you have the key to understanding visionary shamans and people everywhere.

What a shaman values and is interested in determines what the shaman perceives and vice versa. If the shaman is compassionate and kind, he or she will both perceive and channel the compassion of the universe. If the shaman is suspicious and angry, he or she will perceive enemies and attack everywhere, thus attracting the dark side of the force.

This of course is true of all of us. Similarly, what shamans value and then project into the world, they create. If a shaman is run by a distorted ego, then that shaman will be oriented toward personal fame, fortune, and status and thus will perceive only those methods of achieving these things. Such a person will be aware of all the ways her or his ambitions are thwarted and will become competitive and ruthless.

Finally, what a shaman values and perceives is based on his or her emotional and mental maturity or the levels of self that can be linked to specific developmental and psychological stages—starting with infancy and ending with elder-hood.

When you observe indigenous cultures where shamanism is practiced, there are different roles the shamans serve in their communities and different behaviors shamans exhibit. José Stevens continues on and explains this:

There may be many varieties of shamans in the communities composing the tribe or nation of that people. The Navajo (Diné), the Inuit, the Huichol in Mexico, and the Shipibo of the Peruvian Amazon are all classic examples of shamanic cultures. They all have medicine men and women who doctor the people, perform ceremony, preside over rites of passage, and so on. And all of these societies have five distinct classes of shamans who perceive the world in dramatically different ways.

First, there are those shamans who are considered dangerous, who perform the dark arts, send curses, make people sick, and cause death and misfortune to come to the people. They do this because in an infantile way they are truly fearful of the environment and strike out against it. They do not operate in a conscientious way, and they are willing to do anything to anyone if it so pleases them. These shamans operate from a survival-oriented value system.

A second class of shaman is one who never innovates but does everything by the book or according to strict tradition. They may be effective in some ways but unable to cope with anything they have not seen before or have not been taught to do. They are often willing to use their shamanic powers for harm or to hire themselves out to place curses on others. They like to be big fish in a small pond and are gratified by intimidating or exercising power over others. We can call these shamans “rule-oriented” because they follow the rules implicitly and condemn those who do things in a more spontaneous or innovative way. This class of shaman is not necessarily motivated by ambition.

A third class of shaman is primarily interested in reputation and in being the most important individual in the clan, tribe, or nation. They like power and are willing to use it competitively to dominate and control. They take an instant dislike to anyone who takes the attention away from them and will seek to ruin or run off another shaman who competes with them. They often have big egos and like the rewards of their work, including sex, money, or power. These success-oriented shamans like to keep their knowledge secret and avoid teaching others so they can be seen as the only ones who know.

The second class of shaman doesn’t necessarily have ambition but is focused on following rules and will not innovate. The third class of shaman can be innovative but will do anything to boost their reputation.

There is a fourth class of shaman who is dedicated to service and works hard for the benefit of his or her people. They can be called upon at any time to help those in need even if there is no pay or remuneration involved. These shamans are generous, kind, caring people with considerable skill in their profession. They make good teachers and will go out of their way to educate and teach those who are interested in learning from them. We call these shamans “relationship-oriented” because they care about others more than they do about building a reputation or holding power.

The fifth class of shaman has all the traits of the fourth class, only they are self-realized masters of their trade. They do not necessarily follow the rules because they know how to do things their own way and do not rely on the traditions to bolster them. These individuals are truly powerful and can bend the laws of the universe at will. Instead of performing long rituals or ceremonies appealing to the spirits, they can simply pass their hand over someone and heal them. These shamans are rare, but they do exist in every culture. We call these true spiritual masters or visionaries “philosophically oriented” shamans.

Perhaps this way of looking at shamans can help us to understand their differences and see how they can behave (or misbehave) so differently. These differences do not apply only to shamans but to people in many walks of life: business people, helping professionals, homemakers, and modern visionaries.


Consider the various teachers you have encountered throughout your life. See if you can evaluate their approach to their trade and to people according to José Stevens’s five different shamanic categories. You may find this rather eye-opening.



All authentic visionaries agree that it is destiny that calls one to be a shaman; shamanism is a calling. This is not a profession that one seeks out.

There are many experiences of initiation that may sculpt a person into a shaman or a visionary. Typically an individual in an indigenous community will have a psychological crisis or near-death experience, or they will be called by a voice from nowhere. Sometimes a person will have a visionary visit from a powerful spirit-being or ancestor in their dreams or endure a life-threatening illness or a psychotic break. With these experiences the initiate often achieves a momentary state of transcendence and experiences oneness and unity with the All. Among both Western and Eastern mystics, such experiences are termed “authentic non-dual mysticism.”

Having had such an experience usually profoundly changes the experiencer and how they live thereafter. A direct experience of the true source from which everything originates changes them utterly, and they then achieve a vastly different perception of life. Often, such initiates return from their visionary adventures with healing and clairvoyant abilities. This is especially true of those who have recovered from a life-threatening illness.

It is because of this that the shaman is known in many cultures as the wounded healer. Having been grievously wounded or ill, and then having recovered after being at the point of death, the shamanic healer-to-be typically experiences a profound and enduring sense of compassion for the suffering of others. It is from this heart-centered compassion that he or she may become a great healer and even a world redeemer.

As we’ve already mentioned, there is a resurgence of interest in shamanism in Western cultures, and increasing numbers of people are rediscovering the ease with which shamanic practices can be learned and practiced, bringing them into their lives for personal healing and problem-solving.

An important point needs to be made here. Bringing simple shamanic practices into your life is not to be confused with being called to be a shaman. We can all bring shamanism into our lives for personal growth and healing, but that does not necessarily mean that we are called to become shamans. Becoming a shaman is a practice that typically develops slowly across months and even years of time—a period during which many difficult initiations can literally sculpt a person into being a great healer and visionary for the community.

In virtually all indigenous traditions one never calls him or herself a shaman. This is seen as bragging about one’s power. There are no certificates or diplomas in the shaman’s world, and whenever you brag about your power, you tend to lose it. The term “shaman” is a mantle bestowed upon the practitioner by his or her community and is based upon the individual’s abilities to stand and deliver the goods as a healer or as a diviner of information on behalf of others. José Stevens points out that although it is difficult to come up with a concrete definition for a true shaman versus a healer of another kind, making these distinctions is not always what is most important:

The debate about the exact qualities of a shaman, who can be a real shaman, and how one becomes a traditional shaman is an endless one for both academics and those who are interested in splitting hairs. We can leave these discussions for others so that we can focus on what is of greater importance—how to use the ancient art of shamanism for practical visionary purposes in our daily life without actually being a traditional shaman.

Throughout recorded history, on every continent, people have rubbed elbows with shamans. Although not everyone who was guided or healed by a shaman became shamans themselves, they certainly learned enough to apply with great advantage the shamanic knowledge they had gained to influence their societies and cultures everywhere.

Consider, for example, the effect on society at large of the literary works of Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan), and modern writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), Carlos Castaneda (The Teachings of Don Juan), and J. K. Rowling (the Harry Potter series). All these writers are visionaries who understood the dimensions and the frequencies of the shaman’s world from direct experience.

People with shamanic knowledge have become healers, hunters, architects, builders, artists, actors, politicians, writers, or great leaders of their people. They are not shamans per se, but they certainly are aware of shamanic principles, attitudes, perspectives, and ways of seeing, which enable them to not only survive but to thrive and to extend their knowledge to others.

For these reasons, ongoing generations have been powerfully influenced by the path of direct revelation of the shaman, and this is reflected in all our religious traditions, our philosophies, and our practices—from Taoism to yoga, from sports to religion, from government to business, from intuitive wisdom to healing. It is not an exaggeration to say that without the visionary influence of shamans and shamanic practice, the human race would probably not have survived.

The truth is that humans everywhere share basic traits, abilities, and skills with shamans—visionaries who simply develop these skills to a masterful degree through their initiations and subsequent training. Although shamanic abilities usually remain latent in many people, everyone can make use of the shamanic approach to life because it is natural and basic to all humans everywhere on the planet. All humans have intuitive abilities at some level. All humans are capable of achieving trance states, comforting others, performing simple ceremonies or rituals, influencing others, dreaming, and molding their environments based on their imaginations and their visions.


Many who study and practice shamanism consider the ancient methodologies developed and refined by traditional shamans for achieving expanded states of awareness to be a form of technology—a technology of transcendence, or a technology of the sacred—in which each new generation has the responsibility to perpetuate and refresh a continuously recreated tradition, even adding to and changing the ever-accumulating trove of wisdom and technique. For it was in this way that the ancient path of the shaman remained immediately meaningful and vital to those who practiced it.

Indigenous people know everything there is to know about their surrounding environment, and if there are psychotropic plants growing nearby, the ritual use of hallucinogens derived from these “plant teachers” is sometimes utilized for the purpose of expanding awareness and accessing the sacred realms.

Many investigators such as Terence McKenna and Ralph Metzner, the anthropologists Michael Harner and Luis Eduardo Luna, and researchers such as Graham Hancock, Rick Strassman, and others have suggested that the use of plant-derived psychedelics (the word “psychedelic” means “mind manifesting”) may have been responsible for the beginnings of spiritual awareness in human beings. This implies that hallucinogens may have actually served as the genesis of religion in the first place, which explains why these “plant teachers” are often referred to as “entheogens” (meaning they “release the deity within”).

The growing literature on hallucinogens reveals striking cross-cultural similarities in the reported effects of these natural substances on human consciousness. These include the capacity to channel the energy of the universe, discover the most profound secrets of Nature, and acquire wisdom that may be used for magical, medical, and religious purposes. But equally powerful and far more widespread are the psychological and physiological technologies developed by traditional shamans for altering consciousness and re-patterning it in specific ways. These highly effective techniques include fasting and sleep deprivation, physical exhaustion and hyperventilation, and the experiencing of temperature extremes during rituals of purification such as the sweat lodge and the vision quest.

It is also generally known that the intensely physical stimulus of monotonous drumming and rattling, combined with culturally meaningful ritual and ceremony, prayer and chant, singing and dancing, can be equally effective in shifting consciousness into visionary modes of perception. Not surprisingly, the use of drums and rattles by shamanic practitioners is a universal practice.

Until relatively recently, most Westerners have tended to regard these technologies of transcendence as mysterious, paranormal, even pathological, and so some of us, in ignorance, still respond to the idea of expanded awareness and connection with spirits with fear and rejection.

By contrast, in a traditional indigenous society such technologies are valued and treated with great respect. Each girl and boy grows up in relationship with elder ceremonial leaders and shamans who are able to access expanded states of consciousness intentionally for the benefit of themselves, others, and the entire community. In these societies, everyone knows that virtually anyone can learn how to access sacred states of consciousness to some extent. They also know that some of us are real naturals at it.

Whether the practitioner of shamanism is a traditional shaman or you, it is important to understand that the nature of the visionary experience can be determined, to some extent, by our intentions, by our belief systems, and by the nature of the experience—the set and setting—in which we find ourselves. Taken together, these parameters serve as “patterning forces” that can shape the visionary experience once the initial state of consciousness has been destabilized by the drum, the rattle, or the hallucinogen, if one is used.

Furthermore, as most modern shamans are well aware, the psychedelic is not necessary. The ritual use of hallucinogens is only one facet of the path of direct revelation. Many of us who have never experienced mind-altering substances have had spontaneous visionary experiences that have carried us through some unknown inner window into the realms of things hidden, which are so well-known to tribal peoples.

These technologies—from drumming to hallucinogens, from sleep deprivation to singing and dancing—enhanced by ceremony and ritual, collectively and singularly, are being reworked in our time into something entirely new, something that reflects who we are today and what we are becoming. Hence, there’s the need to achieve an upgrade that reflects who we are as modern people in our own time.


At one time, the way of the shaman was practiced exclusively by hunters and gatherers in order to find food and other resources for their tribal bands. They accomplished this by achieving expanded states of awareness in which they could connect with the spirits of the animals that they needed to kill for meat and hides. Connecting with the spirits was about correct protocol—about getting permission to—and this always fell within the realm of the shaman. In traditional cultures, there were often just a few people in a community who were able to step into the role of the shaman to ask the transpersonal forces with whom they were in relationship for sustenance, support, guidance, and healing on behalf of others.

By comparison, today we see a wide range of people integrating shamanic practices into their lives. More and more people of today’s world are beginning to realize that the path of direct revelation brings us into relationship with the worlds of things hidden, through which we may learn that everything that exists is alive and has a spirit (and a voice), and that there is a field of energy that connects us to all of life. This awareness of interconnection is shared by tribal shamans at one end of the human continuum and by quantum physicists and Zen Buddhists at the other.

In today’s Western world, our culture is very much defined by a pervading sense of fear, competition, separation, and alienation, and increasing numbers of people are experiencing a deep internal need to feel direct, transpersonal connection to the web of life— and through this web to each other. The visionary practices of the shaman bring us into this connection, awakening us once again to the knowledge that we are more than a body with an ego.

Many have observed that we are actually spiritual beings inhabiting a body. When we engage with the compassionate spirits directly, everything—both healing and the assistance we need in life—becomes available to us. Dealing with these transpersonal others is not about worship. It is about relationship.


Through the experiential centerpiece of the shaman’s practice—the shamanic journey—we can tap into our extraordinary nature as well as the nature of everything around us. But, before taking this journey, we must prepare ourselves by making sure we have the things we will need for the road ahead. As such, José Stevens makes it clear that taking the shamanic path requires acquiring those innate “tools” needed to reawaken so that we can successfully navigate that path:

Shamans the world over understand that humans are born with a toolbox preloaded with three exceptional tools for healing and accelerating freedom. These user-friendly and quite ordinary tools are often overlooked as being simplistic and not respectable, especially in the fields of science and Western psychology. Even those who know about the tools tend to misinterpret them and fail to understand their true significance. Shamans, however, make a point of developing and mastering these tools because they know that they are the keys to a shaman’s power.

Like wrenches or drills, these shamanic tools do not work all by themselves; they simply sit in the toolbox patiently waiting to be picked up. In other words, these tools only work if backed by intent and used with deliberate focus and willingness. Shamans know that if there are other agendas—if the mind is preoccupied with hostility, martyrdom, competitiveness, and the like—the tools will be difficult to use effectively. Nevertheless the tools are so powerful that just by one’s willingness to pick them up, they will begin their extraordinary work.


The first shamanic tool in your toolbox is gratitude, an attitude and an orientation designed to open the heart. Gratitude is a high-level amplitude that is designed to open portals, windows, and doorways into the spirit world.

Shamanically speaking, in everyday reality (what a shaman considers a consensus dream), Spirit is not apparent to the naked eye. In fact this ordinary world of stone, flesh, and fiber is often quite depressing because it involves frustration, pain, and frightening circumstances and events. The pleasures are more often than not offset by the stress of everyday survival and the constant mind chatter that is enough to drive even the most stable person crazy.

Yet a shaman knows that just behind the movie set that makes up the world, Spirit lies camouflaged, bursting with light and freedom, waiting to be recognized and resourced. Spirit has cleverly arranged portals in strategic places that if opened, lead directly past the everyday outer world into the power of the inner reality where all answers lie and where all problems are revealed to be the illusions that they are.

These portals are literally everywhere, but there are primary ones that are so close to us that they are practically impossible to miss. The one most accessible is the heart, which lies smack in the middle of your chest just below your chin, and it is so accessible that you can easily reach your heart with your hands. When you speak it vibrates, and when you breathe it is massaged all around. It is hard to comprehend how you would miss it, yet we do ignore it every day unless we should have the misfortune of a heart attack.

Shamans “see” through their hearts. Shamanic tribes like the Maori of New Zealand believe that the physical world we experience is actually a projection coming from each individual heart. The Mayans and the Q’ero tribe in the Peruvian Andes have their own versions of this basic understanding. Their shamans know that self-importance, created by the ego, is dedicated to keeping the powerful heart portal closed off enough to prevent Spirit from shining through.

The ego accomplishes this by shutting down the heart to the point where the portal remains closed to the spirit world. The portals pop open only when a certain amplitude is reached, so keeping it below a certain level prevents opening. What keeps amplitude low are all the familiar maladies: fear, hostility, self-importance, depression, self-doubt, cynicism, and frustration. Because of these, most people’s hearts are shut down most of the time, which feels bad in the chest and cuts off the main avenue of escape from pain and suffering—an open heart.

Gratitude counters these ploys by the parasitical false personality and raises the amplitude high enough to begin the heart-opening process.


When you feel down in the dumps, it is difficult to spring into complete gratitude for anything, so you have to work up to feeling grateful little by little. Turn your thoughts toward something you love, something that is innocent and deserving of gratitude such as your cat, dog, or parakeet. Allow yourself to feel a little bit of gratitude for this creature in your life. Then begin extending this feeling to other beings or things to which your false personality (usually created by your ego to deal with life at large) has a hard time objecting—sunlight on a cold morning, hot chocolate, or shade in the hot sun. Now remember that the ego has no effect whatsoever on Spirit. Our false sense of self can only affect our spiritual side temporarily, so the advantage of gratitude is that it engages Spirit by coopting the personality, thus separating it from the clutches of self-importance.

The gifts of gratitude are plentiful. Here are just some of the things gratitude will do for you:

1. Gratitude reframes experiences so that what seemed like a problem or something that hardly mattered becomes a good thing instead. For example, when you are grateful for the tree in front of your house, you stop ignoring it and focus instead on its gifts and benefits to you. The world instantly becomes a better place because you are grateful.

2. When you are grateful, you connect to something outside of yourself and recognize that you depend on others or on Spirit. In other words, having gratitude instantly switches your orientation away from self-importance and self-referencing and reminds you that we are all interconnected.

3. Gratitude reinforces what is benefiting you because Spirit is always inclined to give you more of what you recognize and acknowledge. The greater your gratitude, the more you will receive that for which you are grateful.


The second great shamanic tool in your toolbox is seeing. For a shaman, “to see” is to cut through the veils of ignorance, the false appearance of the world, in order to see clearly into the true nature of Spirit as it manifests through all of reality. In other traditions, it is known as forgiveness or compassion. Seeing is the most powerful method of releasing blame, guilt, and shame.

Seeing ends the war within us just as it resolves conflicts with externals and paves the way for our cooperation and extension. The false personality tries to convince you that forgiving or having compassion is a weakness, that you are setting yourself up to be taken advantage of again. It also tries to get you to believe that you and others have no value and therefore deserve ill treatment or self-loathing. Seeing makes these terrible perceptions impossible. Seeing the truth provides relief from the terrible stress of guilt, and this results in shifting our energy in a way that allows us to open the heart and other portals to the world of spirit.

When shamans speak of “seeing,” they are actually talking about clearing away the projections and distorted thoughts of the conscious mind onto the world at large and all its forms.

Shamans and visionaries know that these projections are blinding and the source of endless misunderstandings and assumptions based on fear of the unknown.

Seeing means that we are perceiving the truth, and therefore there is no room for hostility, blame, fear, or set decrees. How does this take place? When we really see in the shamanic or visionary way, we know that we are Spirit and that we have simply become confused and are lost in appearances for awhile. The false personality is only a delusional construct created by the egoic self; in dealing with the world, it tends to create lies in which we and others take refuge.

Shamans say that when people learn to see they are able to access almost limitless power because they realize they are intimately connected to the vast web of life. For the shaman, seeing into the true nature of reality and the self is a great power; it is a required skill for self-realization and ultimately enlightenment.

In order to reconnect with the tool of seeing, you might integrate these seeing practices into your daily life:


1. First, we must prepare for our exercise on seeing. Think of something you did as a child for which you were punished or that you felt bad about at the time. Maybe you took some money from your parents or stole some candy. Maybe you tortured an insect or beat on your brother or sister. From your perspective now, you can see that this was simply an error of an ignorant child and most likely you have long since let go of feeling guilty over this. Often the memory simply elicits compassion or a little chuckle as time has healed it. If there is any sense of guilt left over, don’t use this event in the exercise. Find something that was very minor.

2. Take a moment to envision a time in the future when you have grown in compassion and wisdom, perhaps a time when you are a self-realized being. From that point of view, look upon yourself today with the same kind of compassion that you now look upon yourself when you were three years old. You will no longer blame yourself or feel guilt over whatever you now hold over your head. Since your essence exists outside of time, it is already capable of that kind of neutrality. See if you can tap into that perspective for a few moments. This is seeing.

You can also try this exercise using the image of someone you blame or someone from whom you feel very separate. Try to see this person from a future reference point, looking back at the now as if it were the distant past. Realize that at some point in your evolution you will let this blame and separation go because it only prevents you from achieving limitless power.


Now we come to the third great power tool in that shamanic toolbox that everyone has from birth—the ability to bless.

In general, people do not know their function as human beings, and it never occurs to them that their job is actually to bless the world. Many people have been taught to bless their food; they consider a blessing to be a few words mumbled over the meal that lack heart and meaning. This is hardly what shamans mean by blessing.

Blessing is the act of recognizing that Spirit is coming through what we are witnessing or experiencing. It is recognizing and acknowledging the grand flow of Beingness that is present as what we eat or what we see as the landscape, or what we experience in making love, cleaning, or creating with tools. That Beingness flows through the landscape, through our bodies, through each moment of now and gives it indescribable vitality and life force. Yet the physical plane appears to most as a camouflage universe where Spirit does not appear to exist.

Shamanically speaking, many of us respond to the physical world by assuming a deep hypnosis, a deep sleep where we no longer recognize that Spirit is present. Not only do we go to sleep, but large parts of the world may temporarily go to sleep as well. So it is our job to wake up and to awaken all that is around us. This act of waking up could be called “blessing the world.”

Many of us have been taught to believe that only people who have gone to seminary or special training programs to become ministers, rabbis, priests, imams, or shamans have the right to bless. We invite the ordained individuals to come before us and bless ceremonies, fields, businesses, projects, meetings, and banquets, and we bow our heads while they talk to Spirit for us.

This is not a bad practice, but it is extraordinarily limiting. Many of those we invite to do the blessing for us are the most asleep of all, revealing that no one can do the work of blessing for us. Each human comes with that capacity, with that ability, and with the responsibility to bless.

So what happens when we bless, and how do we go about blessing in an effective way?

To bless means that you become conscious that you are alive and that Spirit is flowing through you. This realization allows you to see that Spirit is flowing all around and that what is coming through you is coming through everything and that it is all the same. When you see or sense or feel this you merely say something like, “I am Spirit. Let us awake. Let us awake Spirit in everything I see.”

While saying this you can look around and bless with your hands and arms outstretched, waking everything up to the incredible power of Spirit that flows through everything with great passion and peace. In response, everything receives a boost, everything celebrates, everything is grateful, and everything forgives its slumber. There are few practices as powerful as this awakening. If you want to add a little something else to your blessing, you may bestow upon everything that you are experiencing or witnessing the gift of well-being from the bottom of your heart.

You might say, “I give you great happiness and love. May all who come here or pass this way be blessed with joy, abundance, and wellness.” What you give is what you get, so make sure you give the best you can imagine.

Blessing is incomprehensibly powerful and is perhaps the greatest tool of all because it is the pathway back to Spirit. Yet it is hard to bless if you have no gratitude and you have not seen the need to forgive. These three tools work together as a powerhouse trio. They are all important characteristics of the physical universe: Truth, Love, and Energy—or Yachay, Munay, and Llankay, the three Andean shamanic principles of living. Each tool works with all three components. Gratitude recognizes truth, transmits love, and enhances energy. Seeing tells the truth, generates love, and liberates energy. Blessing acknowledges the truth, radiates love, and releases phenomenal energy.

Always remember that you have shamanic tools resting in your toolbox. They require deliberate use to become effective. These three tools, when used regularly, are all that is needed to become liberated and self-realized and to gain mastery over life. Why wait?


First thing in the morning, go outside and practice blessing the sky, the Earth, the trees, or whatever elements are most visible. Then go on to bless your family, your colleagues, your students, your teachers, and all of their communities as well. Bless all their relations and on and on until everything and everyone has been included. Bless Spirit and don’t forget to bless yourself. Now experience how you feel. Do you feel more expansive, more powerful, more happy, more on the right path? This is the true shamanic way—and the way of the visionary.