Shamanic Divination as Spiritual Problem Solving
Shamans are often called “seers” or “people who know” in their tribal language because they are involved in a system of knowledge based on first-hand experience. Shamanism is not a belief system. It’s based on personal experiments conducted to heal and to get information. - Michael Harner
Often when people think of the benefits of shamanism today, what comes to mind is shamanic healing for individuals. When faced with a larger community issue or natural or other disaster, shamanic practitioners may limit themselves to asking the spirits to directly alleviate the situation through purely spiritual means – for example, by asking their spirits to travel to the place of suffering and offer healing. While this “distance healing” method can be immediately helpful in many cases, it also may raise complex ethical considerations.
While healing is indeed an important aspect of the shaman’s work, in these arduous and often chaotic times it is important to recognize the immense contribution shamanic divination can make toward effective long-term solutions for persistent individual and community dysfunction. This article offers some practical suggestions for using divination for problem solving. (1)
Spiritual Problem Solving
Shamanic divination, which most simply stated is asking the fully compassionate spirits for answers to questions, can reveal knowledge often hidden from access by ordinary reality means. (2) I like to think of divination as “spiritual problem solving.” In addressing difficult situations in ordinary reality, just as in shamanic healing, before applying shamanic methods the shaman first asks the spirits what the problem is and for the recommended course of treatment.
Powerful shamans are masters of two realities. (3) We are both ordinary and non-ordinary reality beings – thus the challenges we face involve these aspects as well. It is important that we investigate and research topics of concern to us by all conventional means possible.
But ordinary reality actions alone cannot resolve the crises facing us, because these actions are, by definition, incomplete. For effective, elegant, and enduring solutions, we need to work in non-ordinary reality as well, bringing to bear the power and wisdom of the helping spirits.
Ethical considerations on shamanic work
In all shamanic healing and divination work, ethical practice is essential. Since matters of the soul are involved – for every being – permission must be obtained from all who will receive the work, including people, land, waters, air, and non-human beings.
To offer healing without the informed consent of humans and the agreement of other life forms or earth forms is to practice sorcery, which ultimately ends badly. In matters of the soul and spirit, every being has the right to determine the path its spirit will follow. (4)
Training and Practice
It is the connection with the helping spirits that makes a powerful shaman. Shamanic training can help forge these spirit relationships and accelerate one’s abilities; dedicated practice can further hone your skills. (5) Mastery requires commitment and experience. Once you are able reliably journey and contact the spirits, the spirits themselves will teach you and further enhance your proficiency. There is no need to wait for expertise, however, to begin. It is in the practice itself, moving forward a step at a time as one gains knowledge and experience, that mastery is attained.
An approach to shamanic problem solving
In this approach, to aid and encourage you as to get started, commonly referenced stages in the problem-solving process are used to illustrate one way of applying shamanic divinatory practices to individual and larger issues. As you gain experience with the method, it is expected that you will personalize the approach to better fit your own practice.
Problem solving through divination is a multi-layered undertaking. Issues evolve over time, shift then stabilize, advance and retreat, as actions play themselves out. It is a dance between the two realities: selecting a problem to address, consulting the spirits, refining an ordinary reality action and carrying it out, observing the results; then diving deep into ordinary and non-ordinary reality again for new knowledge and wisdom to apply.
Note that working at the level of ordinary reality solutions does not preclude the use of in-person or distance shamanic healing work as well. But for this problem solving method, focus on shamanic divination for ordinary reality applications.
In many cases, you as an individual will be using shamanic divination privately to gain knowledge about an issue when working with a non-shamanic group. Since you are asking for actions to be carried out in ordinary reality, and not asking for the spirits to do direct healing work, the ethics are fairly straightforward in most situations. It is not necessary to tell the group what non-ordinary reality means you use to come up with solutions, though you may at some point feel it is appropriate to do so.
There may be times in the process when consultations with the spirits touch on issues of permission. You must be alert to this possibility and exercise discipline to maintain appropriate ethical boundaries. As an example, say you are working with a group where one of the members is difficult and seems to be holding back progress. Ethically, you cannot use shamanic means to find out anything about this person without explicit permission. You might, however, ask the spirits questions like: “What can be done to restore group harmony?” or “How can I work more effectively with this person?” – taking care not to seek any private information about the person. Of course, you can certainly employ conventional relationship-building and conflict resolution methods.
Step 1: Define the problem
You have selected the general are of interest to you. For example: homelessness, the plight of elephants, hurricane relief, deforestation, etc. In ordinary reality (OR), you would consider more specifically what it is about the issue that concerns you and why it is important to you.
You would also consult with your spirits by journeying to ask for help clarifying the issue of importance to you. You might ask such questions as: “Which issue, of those that move me, is most important for me to address now?” or “Why it is important to me to help the homeless (elephants, etc.)?”
Step 2: Identify possible solutions
Once you have selected the problem you wish to address, you will specify possible alternative solutions. In OR, research the problem, consult with experts, and gather facts. Investigate what has been done and what is needed.
In non-ordinary reality (NOR), you might make a series of journeys to your helping spirits. Ask for knowledge, insight, and advice about what is needed and how you can help. Keep in mind what you learned from your ordinary reality investigation. Pay careful attention and be prepared for the spirits to offer creative solutions and unexpected ways of looking at the issues.
Step 3: Evaluate and select a solution
Now that you have a list of possible solutions to implement, gather OR information about each of the possible solutions and how they might help resolve the problem. If you expect to implement more than one solution, where should you start?
Journey to your spirits, as needed for clarity, asking for advice on the various OR actions suggested and for ways to make the possible solutions more effective.
Step 4: Implement the solution
Carry out the solution selected in OR. Consult with the spirits as necessary to refine the action and enhance its efficacy.
You may also want to ask the spirits for personal help during the process of implementing the solution, particularly when emotional or other issues surface.
Step 5: Evaluate results
When the action has been completed, gather OR feedback about the outcome. Was it effective in addressing the problem? What worked well? What were problem areas? What more is needed?
In NOR, make follow up journeys and ask your helping spirits for advice and feedback, both about the results of the action, and for personal clarification and insight, for example: What can be improved? How can further actions be more effective? What am I personally learning in the process?
Repeat steps 1-5 as necessary to address deeper layers of the issue, or to begin addressing a new problem.
Shamanic divination using this general process can also be employed by a group of shamanic practitioners. (6) In this situation, each member of the circle would have both OR and NOR input. The group would work together to formulate into a coherent whole a cooperative action to be implemented – an action which respects the OR and NOR contributions of each member. This increases the complexity of the process considerably, but also provides the potential for a more comprehensive solution.
The Way of Compassion
Shamanic divination is powerful method for problem solving. As with many highly effective practices, it requires much from its practitioners. Committing oneself to this path means that along the way, issues will surface: fear, doubts, attachments to outcomes and “my way,” confusion, judgements, anger, and the “posing of enemies.” These challenges should not be seen as punishment, but as a kind of gift from the beneficent powers of the universe – as opportunities to move through ordinary reality limitations into a new state of being as a compassionate and evolved human.
When you dedicate yourself to this way of compassion, because effecting change is not an easy road to navigate, I have found it important to choose an ordinary reality undertaking that is close to your heart, something that you truly care about that moves you deeply. It is love for this chosen subject, the deep desire to see it grow and flourish, that will see you through the seemingly impossible times – that, and your relationship with your compassionate spirits and their love for you. And in the practice of working to nurture that which you love, you will be transformed.
(1) For practice in a variety of shamanic divination methods, the FSS weekend workshop Shamanic Divination Training is recommended.
Harner Shamanic Counseling Training is an excellent way to sharpen your journey skills, build strong relationships with your helping spirits, and practice interpretation of information received in journeys.
(2) The term “spirits” in this article is used to refer to the fully compassionate spirits of the Upper and Lower Worlds, unless otherwise stated.
(3) See Harner, Michael, The Way of the Shaman. New York: Harper & Row 1980, revised 1990, p. 59.
(4) For more about what constitutes permission, see the Ethics and Shamanism article.
(5) For more about shamanic training: Weekend trainings can enhance your knowledge and practice considerably. In addition to the personal transformations most students experience, the advanced residential Three Year Programme of Advanced Initiations in Shamanism and Shamanic Healing helps to build close and powerful relationships with your helping spirits.
(6) Sandra Harner’s Shamanic Training in Creativity includes a group exercise to find a creative solution to a community issue.
Susan Mokelke, J.D., is the president of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and director of the FSS Faculty. She currently teaches the FSS two-day workshops and the Three Year Program of Advanced Initiations in Shamanism and Shamanic Healing. She can be reached through the Foundation at email@example.com.
This article contains the theoretical foundations of the workshop "Shamanism for Inspired Local and Global Change" that aims at creating practical and ordinary reality based solutions for collective issues.