My name is Ya’Acov Darling Khan. I am a shaman. I didn’t give myself the title; it was given to me. Traditionally, the title of shaman is never claimed by an individual, but is given to them by their teachers, elders and community. What I found was that for many years I had the same experience over and over again: without knowing me, and often without previous conversations, indigenous elders and shamans recognized me as a colleague. More recently, they have trusted me to work with members of their own families and communities. But, as a white man in the modern world, it has taken me nearly three decades to fully understand and accept the role of shaman.
On the one hand, being a shaman is simply a job, or perhaps more accurately a vocation. On the other hand, it takes decades of intense learning to embody the role. It’s one of those jobs where you get better the older and more experienced you get. It is a lifelong invitation to serve the systemic wellbeing of the community, human and non-human, physical and non-physical.
After I shared the story of my shamanic initiation in my last book, Jaguar in the Body, Butterfly in the Heart (Hay House, 2017), I had a meeting with Michelle, managing director and publisher at Hay House UK, to discuss what I could offer next in book form. She told me that, surprisingly, no one had yet written a book simply called Shaman, and asked if I would write one to offer my perspective on the role of the shaman and the use of shamanism in the modern world. She knew that my wife, Susannah, and I had dedicated our lives to creating a body of work that had shamanism at its heart.
I thought long and hard about writing such a book. I knew it would be a challenge to do justice to such a huge and complex subject. And I also recognized the issues surrounding cultural appropriation that are rightly coming more into awareness. Though Susannah and I have studied with and been inspired by many indigenous teachers, our work is not taken from these traditions, but there is no getting away from the reality that I am a privileged white man. To be accurate, I am 92.4 per cent Ashkenazi Jewish, the great-grandson of Eastern European refugees. I am also 1.5 per cent Greek, 1.2 per cent West Asian, 1.2 per cent North African and 0.9 per cent Inuit. I can also say that shamanism has been my passion from the moment I discovered its existence shortly after being struck by lightning in my early twenties.
So, I sat with Michelle’s invitation for some time and then I did what shamans do: I went into ceremony and prayed for guidance. This book is the result of the guidance I received. Having said that, it isn’t about me. It’s about you. It’s about us and where we are as a species. It’s an invocation to a powerful archetypal energy, the Inner Shaman, which is in us all. It’s a call to that Shaman to awaken. The Inner Shaman is a healer and stands at the doorway between what we dream and how we live, reminding us of our responsibility to the truth inside us and to the health of the whole web of life.
As we step forward on this journey, it feels important to me to acknowledge that shaman is a word with a deeply sacred and deeply painful history. Throughout human history, shamans have been women, men, gender fluid, people of colour and white of skin. The massive damage that the European colonizers did to the indigenous peoples and traditions of the world was first seen in Europe itself, where the Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish Inquisition destroyed the native shamanic traditions without mercy and with diabolical violence. In Europe, we cut down our forests and then set out to export this story of ’civilization’ around the world through the horrors and dogmatic marriage of Church and empire. And though the genocide of indigenous peoples and their traditions is well documented, it is far from healed.
It’s no wonder that there are many within the indigenous traditions of the world who feel further betrayed by the ways in which their shamanic practices have been consistently and unconsciously appropriated without permission. At the same time, there are many within those traditions whose guidance has inspired them to share their wisdom in order to remind the people of the industrialized world of what is sacred before it is too late for us all.
Shamanism in the modern world, like most other subjects, is a multi-layered and complex landscape, and I fully understand why people may question my use of the word shaman. As I explained earlier, I am using it because shamans from the Amazon to the Arctic have asked me to carry it and take something of its Unbroken spirit back to my own land and people. One of my central teachers was ’urban shaman’ Gabrielle Roth, a New Yorker in a black leather jacket with a heart full of incisive, street-wise and challenging truths. She urged Susannah and me to give ourselves to the beat, lose ourselves to the dance and mend the split between body and spirit. Our work with her was the high-intensity cauldron in which, over 18 years of apprenticeship, we discovered our own work. And she was very clear that although we can learn a lot from shamans and teachers from other cultures, shamanism is indigenous to its own culture.
Whatever their culture, shamans have certain things in common. For example, they speak for the invisible realms. They speak for the non-human worlds. They remind us of our responsibility to be caretakers of the future through our choices in the present. And for that reason, the return of shamanism and its evolution in the modern world matter a great deal. In itself, this would have been enough reason for me to agree to write this book. Added to it is the fact that western or neo-shamanism often appears to have more to do with status, exotic appropriated fashion items and otherworldly experiences than with the very real work of healing and living with awareness of and care for one another and our environment.
Susannah and I have dedicated our lives to integrating, distilling and offering the essential medicine we have learned from our studies around the world, including within our own culture. Early on, our indigenous teachers taught us that it was our job to adapt what we had learned for our own culture, and that is exactly what we have done. The shamanic practice I’m going to share with you in this book is the result of that. It is an embodied practice, and though it is rooted in ancient wisdom, it is a new and contemporary form. It’s called Movement Medicine. Movement Medicine doesn’t require costumes, feathers, plant medicines or anything else taken or received from other traditions. It simply invites you to be present in your body, unafraid of your heart and open in your mind. It asks you to take responsibility for who you are, where you come from and what is yours to offer in this world. It doesn’t ask you to believe in anything. It does invite you to trust the power of your embodied imagination.
The title of this book is an invocation. And I am drumming and singing it into the eight directions, through the roots, trunk and branches of the Tree of Life: ’Shaman! Hey! You there! Yes, you! I’m calling to you — you inside your skin, inside your bones. To the ancient memories that are alive in your DNA — the Inner Shaman who remembers your unbreakable connection to the magnificent spirit of life and who you truly are. It’s time to awaken. Your body needs you. The Earth needs you. Your heart needs you. Your dreams need you. You are creation itself in the form of a human, and you have so much to give…’
My intention is to show you that there is an Inner Shaman within you, an archetype that I believe has a powerful role to play in the personal and collective awakening we need to engage in if we are to have a future on Earth. Some say it is already too late for us. But my own experience tells me that we have barely begun to understand the power and intelligence of life itself and the potential power of transformation that is within us, between us and between we humans and the web of life. At the end of this book, you will find a way to be in touch with me and share your experience and your feedback. Every shaman I know is hungry to go on learning, and I am no exception.
Human beings are storytellers and meaning makers. The Inner Shaman reminds us that we each have the power to weave the best of all stories into a magnificent tapestry that dignifies who we truly are. And collectively, through a reciprocal and mutually enhancing relationship with nature and the vast Mystery in which we exist, we have the power to create heaven on Earth.
And yet here we are, standing on the brink of catastrophe, still deciding whether we wish to follow our greed and immaturity to their natural conclusion. Will we wake up and take responsibility for what we are dreaming? Will we learn to receive what life is giving us or will we consume ourselves to death? A shaman speaks the language of interconnection. They remind us of the rhythm of life that is dancing inside us and they invite us to follow it. They hold open the doors between the worlds, urging us to realize our power and to use it choice-fully.
Life has been evolving on Earth for 4.5 billion years. And although shamanism has been with us since the dawn of our existence, many of us have been persuaded that its time is over. On the other hand, we are seeing a rise in the pop shamanism of weekend trainings and a lack of professional standards. All this has given the shaman a bad name. But I know in my bones that the Inner Shaman can help us take the opportunities of this time and meet the challenges we face with the same creativity and ingenuity that helped us evolve in the first place. And I am passionate about helping you to get to know and work with the wisdom, power and love for life that the Inner Shaman has brought into my own life and the lives of those with whom I work.
This book is dedicated to our son Reuben’s generation and the generations that will follow. Like every previous generation before them, those brave young adults who are waking up to the mix of mess and magnificence we are faced with and the opportunities we all have to do something about it are being stretched beyond what has been known before. I’m told that’s called evolution.
I am 55 years old and just taking my seat as a young elder. I have learned how to accept my faults and find the dignity to do something about them. I have often leaped off the edge of the known with my arms wide open, shouting with all my heart: ’Bring it on!’ I have loved one woman for more than three decades and continue to deepen my love for her. Making shamanism relevant to the 21st century and sharing it as widely as possible is my passion. I love this life. I love my woman. I love our son and I love the land we live on. I am totally attached. And if this is all an illusion, then so be it. I intend to enjoy it for as long as I can. I know my death. And I have seen the death of this Earth and this sun. And of everything I know and everything I don’t. And because of that, I follow the total imperative of life’s longing to create and create again. As long as my heart is beating, I will praise life, and praise the divine spark that brings life to everything.
I experience life as an ongoing miracle. All of this was once nothing. And inside that nothing was everything that has ever breathed its first and its last breath. We are all made of star dust. Our very bones are made of the material that exploded into being nearly 14 billion years ago.
The work I am inviting you into is knowing yourself as you are: the Great Mystery, developing its knowledge of what this existence is, in the form of you. If you so choose, you can awaken and receive this mantle. You can stand up and dance and become proud of who you are. You have travelled a long way to get here. We all have. And this life is sacred. In the most down-to-earth ways we can imagine and in the most psychedelic visions we can design.
And yet, even though we have conquered many of our external challenges as a species through the brilliance of the scientific mind, many of us seem to be suffering from a loss of connection, meaning, purpose, tribe and land that has us racing around in a waking nightmare in which we consume more and more in a desperate attempt to experience life. And the more we consume, the less we feel. Why? Because our body, heart and mind have become fragmented. Our mind by itself is lost. Our heart by itself is overwhelmed. And our body is left to deal with the consequences. Most of us haven’t found anything approaching satisfaction through our modern way of life. If we had, perhaps the shaman could continue to hang out on the margins of our global village. But the material success that a growing number of the world’s population has enjoyed has brought two major problems: 1) it hasn’t delivered the happiness it promised; 2) it has led to us trashing nature’s wild beauty in order to feed our growing population and continue the dominant story of our times, which demands material growth.
The Inner Shaman
The universal archetype of the Inner Shaman carries much of the medicine needed to cure the emergent challenges of our times. They are the part of us who knows all the wounds — personal, ancestral and of the time — that we are carrying. They also know the medicine that will transform those challenges into high-octane fuel for living life in a way that honours what truly matters to us.
Your Inner Shaman recognizes your place in the web of life. They are in touch with the indigenous wisdom of your people and your land. They honour your lineage and ancestors and are aware of your responsibility to the generations that will come after you. They recognize the importance of the cycles of life and understand the connection between how you imagine the world to be and how it is. My purpose here is to introduce you to this part of yourself or, if you already know them well, to support you in deepening your relationship.
You don’t have to be special to make use of what this archetype can bring you. I am confident that any human being in the modern world, whatever their gender, sexual orientation, religion, colour, culture, belief system or economic status, may benefit greatly from discovering, engaging with and deepening their awareness of this part of themselves. The Inner Shaman is a here and now archetype who knows that things of value take time to grow. They know that in order to harvest the fruit of knowing your place and purpose in life, you have to prepare the soil, plant the seeds and then care for them. In order to manifest a vision, you have to embrace the power you have. And in order to embrace your power safely, you have to find your courage and be prepared to meet and work with a few shadows along the way. Worry not. This book will support you in connecting to the resources, creativity, strength and resilience that the Inner Shaman offers every one of us.
The Inner Shaman knows that the Earth is alive and that our destiny is bound up with hers. They know that life is a gift that is not to be taken for granted. They know that working with the dynamic balance of life rather than attempting to control it has become crucial if we are to evolve as a species. Like it or not, we have created a scenario where we must either become caretakers of the ecosystem that sustains all life on Earth or we must accept that life may have to move on without us, or at least without a lot of us. The evolution of the modern shaman, the return of shamanism to the industrialized world and the growth of interest in shamanic practice are some of our ways of remembering our place in the web of life, our dependency on it and our responsibility to it.
The Inner Shaman recognizes the importance of becoming conscious of how we are bringing our visions to Earth. We do this in so many tiny ways every day and every night, and we can determine whether we do it consciously or continue to act out the deeply held unexamined assumptions that populate our unconscious. So for the Inner Shaman, our connection to the bigger picture translates into simple everyday choices and actions that are congruent with who we choose to be and what we wish to create.
The Inner Shaman also remembers that there is genuinely something missing from modern life. They recognize loss of soul in themselves and others, and the need for healing. They don’t shy away from the loneliness in the human spirit and the lack of inspiring meaning and purpose that is ever more evident in our modern world. They know that this lack, and the ever-growing number of distractions designed to keep us from recognizing it, is dangerous for the web of life. They see that many of us are imprisoned in the story that our perception of reality is reality itself. They remember that this means we have a choice. More than that, we are responsible for our choices — not about what happens outside us, but about how we dance as creatively as possible with whatever life brings us. The Inner Shaman weeps often, overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all, but laughs just as often at the searing intensity and paradoxes of life in a body. They are untamed. They remember and embody the magnificent sensuality of life in a body. They are an elemental, solar-powered blend of animal and human, exquisite sensitivity and raw power. They know the ecstasy of surrender to a higher power. They know how to surrender to the rhythm, disappear in the dance and bring back inspiration and strength for the tribe.
The Inner Shaman stands on the bridge between what I call ’the Unbroken’ and the broken. The Unbroken is that spirit in life and in us that remains whole. Whatever your experience of life so far, if your heart is still beating then the Unbroken is alive and well inside you. At the same time, we all carry the challenges and wounds of what has been broken in us, in our families and in our cultures. The Inner Shaman reminds us of the one whilst helping us to work with the other so that we can continue to be part of the evolutionary arc of life on Earth. How? Through the practice of ritual.
A ritual is a time to expand our view and see the bigger picture our story is part of. It is a time to acknowledge challenges, give thanks, grieve and celebrate. It’s a time to connect to the Unbroken and surrender to the higher power we trust most, so that we can be healed, strengthened and instructed. In ritual, we remember the things that matter most to us and we strengthen our commitment to them. Ritual returns us to the core, to the humming intelligence of life within all life, and to the source that powers it all. During our journey, I am going to share with you the principles and practices that I have found useful in developing the art of ritual.
Everyday Engaged Shamanism
When ritual ends is when everyday engaged shamanism really begins. The Inner Shaman understands how to plant the seeds of their vision in the fertile ground that is the ongoing miracle of everyday life. They understand how past trauma affects us in the present and how potency comes from transforming that past. They know that the future isn’t something that’s going to happen to us but something we’re going to create together. They understand the law of reciprocity and the dynamic balance of giving and taking. They know that our survival depends on recognizing and taking responsibility for the effect we are having on that dynamic balance. They know the connection between what we imagine and how things turn out. They recognize the power of the free will we are given on this planet. And they are ready to help us harness that power and use it for the greater good.
We humans seem to change when we have to. So maybe our current crisis is the perfect scenario in which to wake up, become aware of the choices we are making and make better ones. We have created the crisis; it is up to us to turn it into an opportunity. Every year, more and more medicine people are emerging from the surviving indigenous traditions of our world to remind us of some of the basics that we are in danger of losing in our rush to ’progress’. They are also quick to pick up on those aspects of our development that may help them and their communities. Our good friend Domingo Paez, a respected elder of the Achuar people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, has made it very clear that if we are to evolve, we have to make use of all of our human ingenuity.
For those in the modern world who are called to this work, shamanism isn’t about hanging out on the margins of society, eyes rolled back in constant trance. Genuine shamans are quietly powerful, down-to-earth, humble servants of their communities. They are engaged in the physical world and in touch with the non-physical world for the benefit of all life.
All shamans are human beings, with their own brilliance and shadows. Amongst the surviving indigenous traditions and the growing band of neo-shamanic traditions, as in all areas of life, there are unscrupulous people who will use their power for their own benefit or to do harm. There are charlatans jumping on the bandwagon of shamanism’s re-emergence. And there are also many people who have studied deeply and are totally committed to empowering those with whom they work. As with everything, discernment is required.
Our family and friends in the Amazon rainforest have asked us to stand alongside them as they give their lives to protecting the lungs of the Earth. They have asked as many of us as possible to work in our own cultures to ’change the dream of the modern world’. This book is firmly rooted in that intent. To change a dream, you first have to become aware of what you are dreaming, and the best channel I know for that is to invoke the Inner Shaman.
In an age where adventure has been relegated to vicariously living it out on tiny screens, shamanism holds a key to the joy and power of living in a body with heart and soul, engaging passionately with the creative project called a life. Working with the Inner Shaman can help us all to engage passionately with the project of dreaming into being a new chapter for life on Earth, a chapter in which more and more of us learn to work together for the greater good — mystics and mathematicians, shamans and scientists, therapists and surgeons, the apparently rational and the apparently irrational. Each tribe and each perspective holds a piece of the truth.
I’ve learned many things along the road, but there really is a simple truth in the cliché that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. Apparently the Mayans had a thing about writing knowledge down and sharing it. They reckoned it was like pouring out the cup of their soul onto the page so that they could become empty again and learn some more. My cup is full. So here I go.
You ready? Let’s dance…
Ya’Acov Darling Khan