By Will Hall
Crash course in Urban Shamanism
Shamans are the magician spirit healers in tribal, non-technological societies around the world. Anthropologists use the word “shamanism,” from the Tungus people of Siberia, to mean the commonalities between different traditions. Shamans find their calling through a life-threatening initiatory illness or crisis, go into visioning and trance to connect to other realities, shapeshift out of their regular identity to identify with animals, spirits, and even illnesses, and return to the ordinary world to share skills of healing and creativity. Living at the edge of society and defying conventional norms, conduct, and even gender, shamans are respected as a powerful community link to the divine.
Traditional shamanism means being part of a living tribal society, apprenticing in it and learning its ways. To take this approach, you need to be accepted by teachers who are part of that culture. If you’re an outsider, don’t be racist: never use a culture’s spirituality without guidance and accountability, and always support cultural survival and land struggles against colonialism and corporate expansion. Traditional peoples need real respect and practical activism, not more plastic, new age medicine men.
Urban shamanism is a broader approach, rediscovering the roots of tribal mind for modern people and putting ancient patterns to use in new forms. Urban shamans reinvent spirit healing for ourselves. All of us have ancestral links to shamanic cultures if we go back far enough, because all societies have origins in tribalism. There are no rules and no end to learning and creativity, as we reawaken our indigenous minds and recreate spirit healing in new ways.
Here are some signposts to urban shamanism:
Join with wilderness. Everything you need to know is found in the wildness of nature. Get out of the corporate monoculture of our cities. Wander forests, deserts, beaches, and mountains every chance you get. Go off trails, climb trees, sit silently on the earth, sleep under the stars, find music in rushing water, watch animals, thrash in the ocean, follow footprints, listen to birds, stare at clouds, study plants. Seek out pockets of wildness in the hidden edges of cities. Learn the natural history and ecology of your home.
Tracking and awareness. Listen to and question everything in your outer and inner landscape, grounding yourself firmly in the sight, sound, smell, and touch of your present surroundings as if you were tracking animals in the wild. Slow down, then slow down even more, until the virtual world fades and the real world comes into view. Cultivate your skills with meditation and sensory awareness practices. Remember to observe the observer: our inner emotions and sensations are an important territory to explore, and offer vital clues not just to your mind, but also to the world around you. Stillness and sensitivity will guide your attention to what you need to follow. Always come back to the here and now, it’s the most magical place of all.
Experimental attitude. Go on your direct experience of what works. Don’t take anything you were told or read on faith, use trial and error and healthy skepticism. If you wonder if you are just making things up in your imagination, find out – treat it as if it were real and study the results, like a scientist doing an experiment. You may discover that reality isn’t passive, but collaborative, creative, and participatory.
Find pathways to visionary states. Food, media, driving cars, work, computers, and drugs all hypnotize us into ordinary reality. Take back control of your consciousness and start accessing visionary states on your own terms. Check out new tools: follow your intuition to the ideas, methods, and practices you are drawn to. Dancing, drumming, singing, writing, puppetry, music, sex, silence, ritual – all are possible ways to pass from this reality to the next and back. Open your intuitive side, welcome the unknown, focus in on body sensations and emotions, and learn about altered states and imagination. Be open to unexpected interests and odd sources of power, especially what comes into your life seemingly on its own, or fascinated you in childhood. Try out new identities but be ready to drop them when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Your body is the only instrument you truly need.
Listen to your dreams. Don’t just interpret intellectually, actualize your dreams by keeping a journal, drawing images, dialoging with characters, acting out different parts, and looking for clues in waking life. What is the dreamer telling you? Notice uncanny coincidences, track dream-like synchronicities, and explore underground pathways between unrelated events. The more you pay attention to dreams the more dreams you’ll have, and you’ll discover that waking life is itself a dream.
Hunt lost energy. Addictions, spacing out, numbing your body, dull friends, toxic food, corporate media, bad sex- there is a long struggle ahead of you to reclaim all the energy you waste and put it towards awareness and healing. As you clear your own stagnant energy, follow your inspiration and respond to the alive energy of moments, ideas, plants, places and people. Walk new pathways through your city, open up to unexpected music, poetry and art, follow hunches and look for signs. Treat the things you are ashamed of as invitations to find hidden sources of strength. Break the habit of who you are. Surprise yourself.
Explore your calling. Study your crisis and collapsed self. Listen to the voices, look at the visions, and feel the crazy energies of your madness, with a fresh eye towards what wisdom or learning might be behind it all. Imagine that there is something essential for you to discover in the painful parts you might wish would go away. Notice what remains unfinished and unresolved, and sense how your energy is drained when you don’t listen to the missing parts of yourself. Do this when you are strong, grounded, and have solid support from your community.
Learn from your ancestors. Find out as much as you can about your family and roots. Be on the lookout for eccentric, artistic, mad, activist, indigenous, and nonconformist relatives who may also be on a shamanic path. Pay attention to the struggles for survival that your ancestors went through, and any unmet hopes and dreams that are still felt by the living.
Beware ego tripping. Your true needs are in a mysterious flux; learn techniques to put the goal-directed self in its proper place. The purpose of shamanism is to heal and support the community – not acquire personal power. Don’t pray or wish for specific things like a new apartment or marriage, only general things like a home or love. Let the details be a constant surprise as you focus on the magic and beauty of the larger pattern.
And above all: Watch out for getting overwhelmed. Come back to strong grounding practices, clear awareness, and a healthy life first before exploring the unknown. Pace yourself. Be clear about your purpose as a healer, and don’t let any power or uncanny phenomena you encounter distract you from your integrity and ethics. Forge firm bonds of trust and honesty with beloved friends. Get your feet on the earth before you take off for the heavens.
Another post on Beyond Meds to consider: Schizophrenic or shamanic experience? (includes video and additional links on the topic of modern shamanism)
Border Crossings: A Psychological Perspective on Carlos Castaneda’s Path of Knowledge –– by Donald Lee Williams.
Rolling Thunder — by Doug Boyd.
Plant Spirit Medicine: The Healing Power of Plants — by Elliott Cowan
Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men — by Holger Kalweit
In the Spirit of Crazy Horse — by Peter Matthiessen
Lakota Woman. Die Geschichte einer Sioux- Frau. — by Mary Crow Dog
The Light of Discovery — by Toni Packer
Journey to Ixtlan — fiction by Carlos Castaneda
The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel — by Ursula LeGuin
Woman on the Edge of Time — by Marge Piercy
The Tao of Psychology — by Jean Shinoda Bolen
Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit by Tom Cowan
Rivers & Tides DVD — by Andy Goldsworthy
Waking Life DVD — by Richard Linklater