Ethics and Shamanism – Reflections on practical healing work
In this article, I hope to clarify some of the issues and establish basic guidelines associated with ethical shamanic healing. As with most issues surrounding ethical behavior, my contribution is not intended to be a rigid prescription, but rather a kind of flexible standard to be considered thoughtfully and sensitively in individual cases. It is hoped that this text will be a good starting point for those beginning their shamanic practice. However, it should also give experienced practitioners the opportunity to deepen their own understanding. (1)
Shamanic practitioners belong to an ancient lineage of spiritual healers. Since shamanic healing work is a form of spiritual healing, the question of ethics is of particular importance. When Michael Harner began offering seminars in Core Shamanism in the 1970s, shamanic healing was still relatively unknown. Today, thanks to the success of his pioneering work, thousands of people worldwide practice shamanic healing; there is also a great interest in practical instructions for the use of this powerful methodology.
For those who practice shamanic healing face to face with their clients, similar ethical obligations apply as for therapists, for example concerning appropriate physical contact. Confidentiality must also be strictly maintained. All information transmitted by clients, but also by the spirits during the shamanic work, is to be treated confidentially.
Since shamanic healing deals with the spiritual aspect of illness, the parameters of ethical practice often seem unduly vague and imprecise. What is allowed in spiritual healing work? What about "distance" healings offered by individuals, groups, and drum circles where the person, place, or situation being healed may be miles away or even on another continent?
Anyone who has been involved with shamanic healing or divination for any length of time, either as a practitioner or as a client, knows of its great power. Miraculous healings can occur. Difficult questions are answered in surprising and useful ways; new, elegant solutions suddenly emerge for seemingly intractable problems. This power deserves our respect and serious consideration of where and how to use it.
Prerequisite: Obtain permission
In order to consciously and compassionately use the power of the helping spirits (i.e., the unrestricted compassionate spirits from the Upper World or the Lower World) in shamanic healing work, there is one essential ethical requirement: obtaining permission. Only in this way does the work have a truly healing effect. By permission I mean the explicit, informed consent of the client for a particular person or group to perform shamanic healing work or divination. This also includes the consent to disclose information about the client.
Healing works without consent are unethical and are in the realm of sorcery. They are unethical because every person has the right and responsibility to decide the affairs of his own soul. Every person has the right to determine his own path without interference or undue influence. It does not matter how obvious the person seems to need help or how sure one is that "they would give permission." Until one has been asked, or has asked for and been granted permission, the work must not be done. It is worth taking the time to make a journey to the compassionate spirits to ask why. In this way, one can find out for oneself why the person's permission is essential for shamanic work to be truly healing.
Many people who are drawn to healing harbor a deep desire to help others. It can therefore be very tempting to quickly ask the helping spirits for healing without the permission of the person in question, when you see someone suffering and know that this person could be helped.
But none of us is wise enough to know what another's soul wants or needs. I have heard practitioners say that if the spirits agree to do healing work, it is okay to do it without permission. This is not true: first, one should not consult the spirits regarding the affairs of others without permission, and second, the spirits may be omniscient, but we humans are all too fallible, prone to errors of interpretation or hearing what we want to hear. Informed consent means that the person for whom the work is intended is at least aware of the fact that the practitioner is offering spiritual healing work and is working with compassionate spirits. If the healing work is face to face, the person should know that there may be some light physical contact. They should be asked if it is okay to touch them if necessary during the healing session.
Explicit permission means that the client has asked or been asked for healing and has given their consent. If the person is alive and conscious, it means a clearly communicated "yes" in everyday reality. It does not mean that the shamanic practitioner asked them in a dream, on a shamanic journey, or telepathically; that a power animal or teacher was asked, or that a power animal was asked to ask the client's power animal, and so on.
If a person is in a coma, permission for shamanic work should be sought from the next of kin. Even then, the soul of the affected person should be contacted via shamanic journey to ask what work, if any, is desired.
Permission is also necessary with deceased persons to perform soul guidance or other shamanic healing work for the soul. Souls are souls, living or dead. When traveling to help a deceased person, the soul should be consulted as to what, if anything, should be done.
For shamanic healing work done for children under about twelve years of age, permission from the parents, preferably both parents, should be obtained in any case. On a case-by-case basis, depending on the maturity of the child, the child's permission may also be required. If the healing is done in the presence of the child, the shamanic healing work should be explained to the child in an age-appropriate manner. One or both parents should be present. For most adolescents under the age of 18, just as with adults, the express permission of the adolescent as well as a parent is required for the shamanic healing treatment.
During a healing session, clients will sometimes ask questions or make requests regarding another person. Even then, one is only allowed to work for the client him/herself; there is no automatic permission to also work for the spouse, relatives or other persons with whom the client is connected. This means that it is not allowed to ask for information about another person or to provide them with healing.
Most often, clients have a specific request for healing of an injury, an illness, an emotional problem, or for help in the form of divination regarding a difficult situation in their life. For example, a client might ask to "heal their broken heart." In this case, there is explicit permission to work on his or her "broken heart" and anything directly related to that issue. However, there is not necessarily permission to go beyond that. However, when asking the compassionate spirits for help with one thing, it is not uncommon for another seemingly unrelated issue to then surface. Some shamanic practitioners feel that permission for a particular issue extends to a general permission to heal. Others limit themselves to working only on what they have been asked to work on. Although sometimes the question of permission can be made somewhat flexible and shamanic practitioners have to decide in consultation with the spirits what to do in a specific case, it is better to be safe than sorry. Fortunately, in most cases one can simply ask the clients if they want to treat an additional subject.
Since clients come to practitioners with a desire for shamanic healing work, that is exactly what they should receive. Unless someone has mastered more than one healing discipline, trying to combine two or more methods of healing work tends to weaken the effectiveness of the healing work, in my experience. Shamanic healing practices have their own unique power. Used by experienced practitioners, it is usually sufficient to do the work in question. I would also advise against using methods of everyday reality simultaneously during a shamanic healing session, even if it is truly well-intentioned. One should resist the impulse to offer advice, therapeutic measures, medical diagnoses, legal advice, relationship tips, conflict resolution or the like. If one nevertheless comes to the realization that these procedures might help the client, one can suggest that additional help from a trained professional in these areas might be helpful.
I am sometimes asked about working with animals. In doing so, I apply the same guidelines that apply to humans. I travel to the soul of the animal and ask for permission.
Shamanic work from a distance
Shamanic healing work works beyond space and time. Therefore, it is quite possible to apply this method effectively for clients even from a distance. Recently, requests for shamanic distance healing have been increasing, often communicated via email or in drum circles. This has given people many more opportunities to access shamanic healing work. This has led to some impressive healing miracles. However, we should look even more critically at the question of permission here - and it is more difficult to determine with certainty whether permission has really been granted.
People ask for very many different types of distant healing: prayers, sending light, focusing on a specific intention - for example, world peace - and many others. Although these requests raise their own questions regarding ethics, I will not address them further in this article, as the text is limited to the ethical practice of shamanic healing work and divination.
When a request for shamanic healing work is made - whether by email, phone, in a group or drum circle - permission is still essential. The same rules that apply to face-to-face work with an individual client also apply to distance healing. The person asking for healing must have given their informed, explicit consent for the healing; likewise for sharing their information with a group doing healing work.
Especially when working in drum groups or via group e-mails, it is important to do only the work that has been asked for. So if a person asks for divination, only divination work that is limited to the question asked should be done. If a specific healing is requested, one should follow the parameters set for that healing work. For example, if a request is made for "successful knee replacement surgery with minimal pain and quick recovery," practitioners should not also ask for "carelessness," a competent surgeon, or the like. Respect the clients' right to determine for themselves what they need.
Finally, especially when working by e-mail, any information for clients should be communicated to them privately: that is, usually to the person who made the request, and not as a response to an entire group. Maintaining the privacy of clients is also an important requirement when using e-mail.
Natural or man-made disasters
What about requests for assistance in the event of natural or man-made disasters? The situation regarding permission can be particularly confusing in these cases, especially when dealing with another country and culture whose customs and practices are unfamiliar. Permission is also essential in these cases, but from whom or from what? If you want to help, it is necessary to first make a shamanic journey to the place in the Middle World where the incident occurred. There, ask the spirits of the place and any souls with whom contact is made if they want help. Always ask before you act. If permission to help is granted, then you can perform shamanic healing work with the support of the helping spirits within the framework of the granted permission.
Occasionally I have received requests to work shamanically to influence a particular outcome in the outside world, for example, to elect a particular candidate to public office, to "open the heart" of an influential figure, or even to end a war. In these cases, there is no permission for shamanic work, as it goes beyond the scope of ethical shamanic practice and, even if well-intentioned, borders on sorcery.
Even working with the weather is subject to ethical considerations. For example, if someone works to "end a drought" or make rain, that work can affect the surrounding areas in unintended ways. The earth is a whole, a living organism. Everything we do has consequences. Everything we do affects everything else, for better or for worse.
Healing is a profound and multi-faceted endeavor. It is often difficult to define what is the right thing to do - even more so when the need is great, we care and really want to help.
If there is any doubt that a shamanic healing treatment is appropriate, one should simply ask the respective addressees, whether it is a person, an animal or a place. If you do not receive clear permission, you should not proceed unless you receive it. If you do receive permission, then work closely with your helping spirits, move within the guidelines of the request, and carry out the work.
Szenarien schamanischer Heilarbeit
The following are some exemplary scenarios with ethical problems that can arise in shamanic healing work. Some are from my own practice, others have been brought to my attention by clients or colleagues. Each of these scenarios raises the issue of consent and should be reflected upon from the perspective of ethical responsibility of the shamanic practitioner.
- A client asks for a shamanic divination to determine when a seriously ill relative will die.
- An exercise instructor decides to offer a "healing meditation" at the end of a class. She instructs participants to form pairs. Then she offers a kind of guided visualization. She asks the pairs to bring healing to each other, then to each other's family members, then to the world. A shamanic practitioner attends the class.
- A client claims she has been sexually harassed and asks for shamanic help to deal with it. After the session, the practitioner makes a phone call to someone who knows the man in question to find out if the allegation might be true and what she should advise her client to do about it. (Note: Would it make a difference if the practitioner had her client's permission to ask the other person?)
- In a journey, a shamanic practitioner encounters the soul of a deceased relative. The soul of the deceased asks the practitioner to perform a shamanic healing for a living person.
- A shamanic practitioner, after consulting with her helping spirits, travels to the scene of a natural disaster abroad. She immediately begins to perform psychopompos work. (Note: What if another shamanic practitioner tells her that he has received permission to do this work? Be it from the spirits at the scene or from his own helping spirits).
- A client asks for help in resolving a conflict he has with a neighbor. Without intending it, during the session the shamanic practitioner receives personal information about the neighbor that might be important for the client to learn. She shares this information with the client.
- A client asks for shamanic help with an argument she is having with a business colleague. The shamanic practitioner tells her to consider filing a lawsuit against the colleague.
- A person asks for a spirit guide for a close relative. The other relatives of the deceased person are strictly against it.
(1) I would like to thank my teachers - Michael Harner, Sandra Harner and Alicia Gates - for their wisdom and guidance in the ethical practice of shamanic healing and divining.
Dr. in Susan Mokelke is president of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and director of the FSS U.S. faculty. She currently teaches the FSS advanced seminars and the three-year program.
© Article originally published in "Shamanism" magazine, issue 21, December 2008;