Shamanism as Everyday Practice
It cannot be denied or ignored that the world is once again in disarray. Ecological and economic crises are on the rise, fundamentalism and terrorism are coming to the fore again, war is raging, not only in Syria and the Middle East, but also in Europe. Especially in such times a differentiated perspective and reflection is needed.
The shaman’s task was and is not to be overwhelmed by fear, anger, frustration or resignation, but to take a step back, call upon his allied spirits, dare to look at the bigger picture, and return with a quality of information and power that brings him and his community confidence and gives hope.
Concrete Solutions for concrete Challenges
American anthropologist William Lyon, who has been studying North American cultures both scientifically and practically for about half a century, sees an essential difference between indigenous shamans and ‘Western’ shamanic practitioners in that shamanic practitioners tend to have the urge to save ‘the world’, ‘the earth’ or ‘Mother Nature’; whereas indigenous shamans are always trying to bring forth concrete solutions to current challenges of their own community (1). In other words, change does not happen elsewhere, but happens in the midst of our own community.
Another difference becomes evident in the actual shamanic practice. Sometimes one gets the impression that shamanic practitioners measure the intensity (and also quality) of shamanic work by the number of journeys per week, per month, etc. But shamanism is more than technique and its application. Shamanism can be understood as a working hypothesis about how nature works; as a particular way of perceiving and viewing the world. Shamanism involves engagement with life and thus daily practice. For us shamanic practitioners of the so-called ‘West’, it is a matter of finding out in our cultures the ways and means, the actions and rituals, how we can express this connectedness on a regular and daily basis.
A Look beyond the Horizon
The view to indigenous cultures can make some things clear and inspire in this respect. The healers of the Mekeo in Papua New Guinea are not only in contact with the spirits by means of conventional shamanic work or dreams (2). Rather, their entire waking consciousness is characterized by a certainty of the existence and significance of non-ordinary reality. The Mekeo experience the physical world infused with a specific quality, a power that connects them with the ancestral spirits (3).
Shamanic power is therefore always and everywhere available. It is up to us and our intention to manifest it in everyday reality (in an adequate and ethical manner). The spirits help us with it – whenever we call them intentionally. It should be added that for us, who live in a highly technological culture influenced by the information age, it is essential to clearly distinguish between every day and altered or shamanic states of consciousness. That it is strongly recommended to drive a car or operate a machine in the everyday (and not in the shamanic) state of consciousness seems self-evident.
The !Kung of the Kalahari Desert on the border of Namibia and Botswana allow us deep insight into the subject of healing work. For the !Kung, all healing work is negotiation with the spirits. In dances that last through the night, the healers act as representatives of the community. Filled with spiritual power, they draw out illness or dispute with the spirits (as part of what we would call a shamanic journey). For the !Kung, we humans come from the non-ordinary reality – and we also return to it. It is ultimately up to the spirits to decide when the time of death has come and the return to the circle of ancestors is due. If the person is finally called by the ancestors, he dies. Healing in the classical sense, on the other hand, occurs when the community’s and healers’ negotiation with the spirits has been successful (4).
The example of the !Kung proves that true change requires the influence of the spirits and sustainable balance can only be secured through ongoing communication between community and spirits.
The continuous manifestation of spiritual power in everyday life is also recommended for us. This can be done through classical healing work (5) – or for instance through everyday practices. For the latter, a few examples that could provide inspiration for shamanic work: A participant of the workshop ‘Power of the Mountains’ told last year that it used to be the task of the elderly in the rural areas of Austria to pray for the village. This not only gave the elderly a proper place, appreciation, respect and recognition; it also revealed their specific strength for the community – which they contributed regularly.
People who spend a lot of time in nature, who own a piece of land or a garden, or who farm, know the seasonal cycle. They know which animals appear when, only to disappear from view again; or which remain to accompany people throughout the year. With certain animals and plants, a specific power becomes available in each case. Gardens, forests and landscapes are to be understood as ecosystems – in the ordinary as well as in the non-ordinary reality. The interweaving of these two sides of the same coin can be used to create an even more powerful place. This requires a certain sensitivity and ongoing work, in other words: a personal contribution, in both realities. The real power and beauty of a place becomes evident when both spirits and people cooperate in partnership.
Closing Point: Everyday Spirits
In the nomadic part of the population of Tuva, the housewife, the mistress of the yurt, begins the day by boiling tea. The first tea is dedicated to the spirits. The housewife takes a bowl with the morning tea, steps out of the yurt and serves the tea with the nine-eyed spoon (Tos-karak). “To this she says the following prayer:
“My golden sun, have mercy!
My bright moon, have mercy!
My mountain top, have mercy!
Embers of my hearth, have mercy!
My divinity, have mercy!
My sea water, have mercy!
My Mother Earth, have mercy!
My father heaven, have mercy!
My rustling forest, have mercy!
My golden sun, have mercy!
My El-people, have mercy!
For my white yurt, have mercy!
For my little children, have mercy!
If the ritual of offering the morning tea to the spirits is not performed, the dream will not be fulfilled, it is said.” (Oorschak Duruja Möngejewna) (6).
(1) William Lyon (2014): personal notice. William Lyon is, among other things, author of the book ´Spirit Talkers: North American Indian Medicine Powers´, Kansas City: PEP, 2013.
(2) vgl. Michael Harner (2010): A Core Shamanic Theory of Dreams. Shamanism Annual. Issue 23, December 2010. p. 2-4.
(3) Michele Stephen (1995): A´aisa´s Gifts: A Study of Magic and the Self. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. p. 241.
(4) Richard Katz (1982): Boiling Energy: Community Healing among the Kalahari Kung. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press.
(5) vgl. Susan Mokelke (2009): Core Shamanism and Daily Life. Shamanism Annual. Issue 22, December 2009. p. 23-25.
(6) Mongusch B. Kenin-Lopsan (2011): Schamanengeschichten aus Tuwa. Published by Paul Uccusic. Göttingen: Lamuv. p. 195.
Mag. Roland Urban is Executive Director of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.