Throughout history, mankind has sought a way to connect with a higher force. Whether it is to make sense of our own existence or to live by a set of rules that are acceptable on a moral and universal level, religion and spiritual belief have been an important part of our psychic evolution. Shamanism is possibly the oldest system through which man has sought to connect with the forces that exist beyond our normal powers of perception.
However, unlike the majority of other systems, there are no scriptures to study and no dogmas to obey; Shamanism uses nature as the teacher from which we can learn about ourselves and the world around us. So what is Shamanism?
The Human Beings
Shamanism, in its purest form, is thought to have originated with the North American Indians. Its main concern is to observe and understand the natural cycles and flow of life and to respect ourselves, others and the natural world. If there is an aim then it is to become a ‘true human,’ fulfilling every aspect of our potential in moral, emotional, physical and psychic forms. Indeed the name of the Tstetsehestahese tribe of North American Indians translates as ‘The Human Beings.’
Although many believe that Shamanism gives them access to their higher selves - in the form of psychic abilities such as clairvoyance and telepathy - the purpose of the system in not to gain ‘special powers.’ If anything, Shamanism is about releasing the power to truly be ourselves, in all our aspects. In doing so, we may experience a greater connection to the natural world that is our environment, but also the psychic world which, although it might appear separate from us, is as integral to our existence as the air we breathe and the water we drink.
The Importance of Rituals
Despite there being no scriptures to follow and no ‘rules’ as such, Shamanism is very much about ceremony. However, many of these ceremonies and rituals appear to have a practical edge to them. It is a way of putting your intent into motion. For example, while praying that a friend recovers from an illness is a positive affirmation of your good will, actually going out and doing their shopping for them is a practical way of putting that good will to practical purpose. If you pray to get rid of negative feelings such as anger, you may well find yourself placed in situations where your mettle is tested. Shamanism is about applying our intent, rather than giving it over to a higher force and hoping for the best. While there are many rituals and ceremonies, they tend to be based in tradition, rather than religious significance. Many rituals are carried out in the same way they’ve always been, simply because they work best that way. However, Shamanists are completely entitled to adapt ceremonies or even create their own, and they are well aware that a ritual is simply a symbolic way of expressing one’s intent or desires. It is the practical implementation of those desires that counts. The system could be viewed as one for self-improvement, encouraging positive action. Just as affirmations are used by those who want to alter an aspect of their personality then rituals and ceremonies serve a similar purpose. They are a way of declaring out loud what it is that you want to achieve. Announcing things out loud is often the first step to making them a reality.
However, there is also a belief within Shamanism that the repetition on a series of actions and words can give the ritual a power of its own and that it can take on some significance, over time, purely by being re-enacted time and again. Medicine men from the past often believed – and many still do – that rituals opened the doorway between the physical and the psychic worlds, often manifesting as visions.
Realising Your Intent
In the past, there were certain tools associated with rituals. Pipes were smoked in the belief that the smoke carried your thoughts and feelings to the next realm. Smudge sticks or charcoal was used to cleanse the aura of unwanted energies and feathers and wings were used to ensure that those energies were properly evicted. Tobacco was seen as a sacred ingredient in many rituals and treated with reverence and respect. However, Shamanism is an adaptable belief system. Given what we now know about the harmful effects of tobacco, pipes are rarely smoked and if they are, herbal substitutes are often used. Shamanism doesn’t cling to the past if it doesn’t have to.
Shamanists believe that the tools used in rituals and ceremonies are only as strong as your intent. Indeed, in many ways, they are seen as the physical embodiment of that intent. This is the reason that so many artefacts used in rituals are interchangeable. Many tribes still use blue corn with which to make an offering to the spirits of nature. However, it is just as valid to use something like an apple. Any higher forces do not absorb or devour the corn or the fruit; they absorb the energies of your intention, like a psychic affirmation of what it is you are looking to fulfil. Similarly, owl pendants were often used when someone needed insight. Using a piece of jewellery that you find attractive is just as effective, as your intent will give that item ‘power,’ in that they will become totems for your desires and serve as physical reminders of what you are trying to achieve, increasing your ability to do so.
Shamanism is the belief that the physical and psychic worlds around us are merely extensions of ourselves, and by doing harm to others and to our habitat, we are, ultimately, doing harm to ourselves. Through a culture of respect for what we encounter in our lives, we create self-awareness and self-respect, which are key in our spiritual advancement. The absence of scriptures and dogmas may well be why this belief system has survived and endured longer than any other. Its simplicity reflects the notion that the answers to all of life’s problems are locked within ourselves and, through achieving our full potential, we can become as divine as the spirits others choose to worship.