Contemporary shamanism: a living practice
What is shamanism?
The World of Shamanism
Since the first wave of Western interest brought shamanism to wider attention, it has gone through an immense revival and also many changes. It has become part of a progressively more urban, global and technologically interconnected world and attracted countless spiritual seekers and lately growing interest — and acceptance — from anthropologists, medical practitioners, psychologists, physicists, biologists and therapists.
In the early stages of this revival, the 1970s/1980s, many westerners began to bring back what they had learned from indigenous shamans, mainly in South America, and practise shamanism themselves, running courses and workshops and creating schools, centres and foundations.8 From these schools we now have a second generation of shamanic teachers all over the western world. Traditional shamans and teachers, especially from Mexico and South America, also began to travel to the USA and Europe to spread their teachings, whilst North American elders and teachers from the Hopi, Lakota and Navajo sent increasingly urgent ecological messages to the world, attracting seekers and inspiring foundations, schools and courses.
In the 1990s, African shamanism came to the fore with books such as Luisah Teish’s Carnival of the Spirit, which introduced the world to the sacred traditions of the Yoruba, and the works of Malidoma Somé concerning the Dagara people.9
Over the last 20 years or so shamanism from the Far East and from Tibet and Nepal, which has interesting Buddhist components, has also found its way into mainstream contemporary shamanism. Australian Aboriginal teachers can now be found on social media and at conferences, and in Mongolia and Siberia shamans and their teachings have become accessible and widespread.
Parallel to this, many of the Western shamanic practitioners and teachers have been taking groups of seekers to learn from traditional shamans in various parts of the world and traditional shamans have in turn been opening their doors to an increasing number of people. This has now, especially in Mexico and the Amazon and Andes, almost reached the level of mass tourism.10
Adding to the mindboggling diversity, we are currently seeing shamanism being integrated into other movements and disciplines in various ways. The consciousness movement has incorporated shamanic cosmology. Ethno-medicine is growing around the world. Strands of transpersonal psychology have incorporated shamanic views of human consciousness. The ecology movement has very much adopted the Earth-based elements. The interconnection of the modern world is reflected in the mixtures and combinations, the interweaving of the old and the new, that is contemporary shamanism.
Characteristics of contemporary shamanism
It is impossible to define contemporary shamanism precisely, as it is such a mixed bag, but we can, as most literature does, compare it to the traditional and become aware of the similarities and the differences.
Western shamanic practitioners and teachers are not shamans in the traditional sense (I am rather sceptical when they call themselves shamans; I prefer the term ’shamanic practitioner’). They neither come from lineages of shamans nor have they gone through the profound initiation rites and the long training periods of traditional shamans. They are not embedded in classical indigenous communities, with ’place and tradition’ grounding their work. In line with developments away from communities and towards the individual, Western shamanic approaches are more focused on the development and healing of the individual.
Nevertheless, contemporary shamanic approaches share their cosmology and many aims and tools with the traditional. They work, as traditional shamans do, towards wholeness, focusing on the integration of the mind/body with the soul/spirit and the whole human with the wider field of spirit. They also work for the community, albeit defining ’community’ now in a more global sense or forming communities with a specific focus, such as the many circles that exist locally all over the Western world. They also employ altered states, form a bridge between the worlds, expand our consciousness and help us to understand our own nature whilst bringing us back to a soul-centred way of life, connected to Earth, spirit and the sacred.
Contemporary shamanism is comparable to traditional shamanism in its work with spirits and spirit allies and its use of a vast range of tools that have been developed within traditional shamanism. It uses ceremony, ritual and vibrational instruments, and employs myths, stories and archetypal symbolism, trance dance, vision quests, wilderness camps, lucid dreaming, natural hallucinogens, various energy healing approaches, medicine wheel teachings and more.
Contemporary shamanic practitioners and teachers understand, as traditional shamans do, that the teachings come ultimately from spirit. Good practitioners, although skilled in their craft, will always work with the help of spirit, and good teaching will facilitate spirit connection for the student. In that sense, the teachings and practices developed over millennia belong to us all, as they are derived from Earth and spirit. We can utilize the vast knowledge that is increasingly being passed on to us by traditional shamans for our own healing and development, as long as we understand that shamanism is about spirit, soul, Earth, connection, consciousness and community.
Contemporary shamanism is about experiencing those valuable, timeless and universal teachings and finding our own ways of incorporating them into our lives. As we get involved in shamanic practices, our lives become more enchanted, meaningful, purposeful and authentic, and we take our rightful places as positive co-creators in the developing flow of life, connected to and in harmony with spirit — and our own spirit.