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Shamanism is Not a Religion, But Healing Based on Generosity


Shamanism is not a religion, but healing based on generosity Irrespective of our worldview, healing traditions share common traits.

All forms of traditional medicine and spiritual healing can be traced back to one of the lineages of shamanism. Although known under different names, the shaman is a man or woman who lives on the limits between the earthbound and the spiritual world, and all worldviews have their own stories about the role of the shaman and their uses. However, with the specialization of science and rationalism, the body-spirit connection has been relegated to the sphere of marginal practices such as witchcraft, and its practitioners were condemned to a ghastly fate. But if we look at it as a kind of traditional knowledge, shamanism is also a privileged door to inhabiting our lives amid greater awareness.

Michael Harner is the director of the Shamanist Studies Foundation and a renowned anthropologist with a solid career in teaching and research in the most prestigious universities, but who decided to open a studies center to document, learn about and teach the practical and artistic science of shamans.

If one were to ask Harner how to recognize a true shaman he would say that there are two ways: the shaman should be capable of traveling to other worlds or realities through altered states of consciousness, and if that was not enough, the shaman should be capable of performing miracles.

A Shaman

It seems strange that someone with a scientific background should express themselves in this way, but it is precisely people who have trained in ethnographic research whom have made connections that are not obvious to traditional scientists: people such as Mircea Eliade, J. G. Frazer, Georges Dumézil and even Carlos Castaneda are top-level academics who also have a special sensibility to document that place where the terrestrial and superior planes cross. That frontier is often policed by spiritual and perceptive barriers that the initiated can cross via an altered state of consciousness; because consciousness is like the sky, it is never completely black or blue, but its state changes to reflect the conditions of time and space.

Shamanism is superficially associated with psychedelic drugs used for recreational purposes, but in a ritual context, according to Harner, ayahuasca or peyote can be authentic allies in crossing those barriers between spiritual levels, although they are only used in 10% of cases. The most common throughout history has been the monotonous sound of a drum, a sonic anchor between two planes:

I was introduced to shamanic work in 1961 among the Conibo Indians in eastern Peru, with the aid of native psychedelics. When I came back to the United States and no longer had my supply of ayahuasca, I experimented with drumming. Much to my surprise, it really worked. It should not have surprised me, because drums were reportedly used by shamans almost worldwide. Virtually everything you find in shamanism is done because it works. Over tens of thousands of years, shamans developed the most time-tested system of using the spirit, mind, and heart for healing, along with plant remedies, and so on. Again, the system is time-tested. So if healers in 90% of the shamanic cultures are using the same methods, we pay attention to them. And, of course, we find they work.

For Harner, shamanism can lead to curing via diverse methods thanks to a transfer of power. Accidents, illnesses, bad luck and everything that causes anxiety is the result, according to a shaman’s point of view, of a lack of strength and which can be remedied with the intervention of the spiritual plane. The lost soul as a result of a trauma is thus restored to the body, and in this way the theory of the suggestion can be used to teach the brain the appropriate moods to respond to the challenges of life if they are studied from a holistic point of view.

From the shamanic point of view, people who are not powerful—spiritually “power-filled,” that is—are prone to illness, accidents, and bad luck. This goes beyond our normal definition of illness. The shaman restores a person’s linkage to his or her spiritual power. This spiritual power is something analogous to a spiritual immune defense system, but I wouldn’t make a one-to one equivalence. It’s an analog. The power makes one resistant to illness. If somebody is repeatedly ill, then it’s clear that they need a power connection. A healthy person who is not sick might go on a vision quest to get this power connection, but one of the shaman’s jobs is to help people who are in no condition to do that for themselves.

It is important to highlight that shamanism is not a religion, and neither does it demand that one believe in the shaman’s worldview. Faith is a judicial demand introduced by Christianity, but in shamanism, spirits and gods exist with the knowledge that, for others, buildings, animals and people exist.

According to Harner:

When somebody who is disinterested, who is not an immediate family member, out of generosity and compassion helps somebody else to relieve illness or pain and suffering—and it works even better when there are two or more shamans involved—this is when miracles occur.

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