What is Shamanism and Core Shamanism?

Shamanism might be considered the world’s oldest spiritual practice. For tens of thousands of years our ancestors have used shamanic methods to contact sources of wisdom and power, not just to benefit themselves, but to bring healing, knowledge and practical wisdom to others. The word “shaman” (pronounced SHAH-mahn) comes from a Siberian tribal word. It refers to a person who is able to experience an altered state of consciousness, leave his or her body, and travel to other realms to interact with spirits.

For Westerners, shamanic traditions and practices were lost centuries ago due to religious and political oppression. In much of contemporary society, those who can personally interact with the spiritual dimensions are often considered to be at best naive or at worst, delusional. Indigenous shamanic practices survived only in places like the remote jungles of the Amazon in South America or the harsh climates of the Siberian subarctic. Many of these practices are disappearing today after the indigenous peoples who use them have come in contact with outsiders.

Fortunately for shamanism and for us in the West, over fifty years ago an anthropologist, Michael Harner, took a different path. In his work with indigenous peoples and research into various shamanic tribal practices throughout the world, he became aware of many similar shamanic outlooks and practices embedded within otherwise very different shamanic cultures. He coined the term Core Shamanism to refer to these universal, near universal and common features of shamanism, together with journeys to other worlds, a distinguishing feature of shamanism. These core shamanic practices appear in almost all shamanic cultures.

Training in Core Shamanism is particularly suited to contemporary society. It includes teaching students to alter their state of consciousness through classic shamanic non-drug techniques so that they can discover their own hidden spiritual resources, transform their lives, and learn how to help others. This training involves first and foremost learning the “shamanic journey” where one travels to hidden worlds in an altered or “shamanic state of consciousness” to make direct contact with helping spirits. Using rhythmic percussion sound, typically drums and rattles, most students are able to access these hidden words in a surprisingly short time.

Humans have been using these shamanic methods for healing and problem solving for many thousands of years across all inhabited continents and in a wide variety of cultures. These methods continue to exist to this day simply because they work. It has been the experience of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies that the shamanic state of consciousness is part of our biological and spiritual design. This would explain the widespread success of workshop participants to do shamanic journeying and access these hidden worlds after just one weekend of training.

Visiting the spirit realms and being in relationship with compassionate, enlightened beings changes us. Our perspective broadens and deepens. Our heart opens as we become more loving and are drawn in our own way to help ease suffering in the world around us. We begin to perceive the cycle of life and death differently. Fear and uncertainly are replaced by understanding of the bigger picture and a sense of our place within it.

The realms of the compassionate spirits are outside of space and time, beyond opposites, whole. When we are there working with helping spirits, we too partake of this wholeness, of the ecstatic union described by mystics. We know, as shamans throughout the ages have known, that everything is one, whole, complete, and alive. We forever carry this knowing in our heart.

The beauty of Core Shamanism is that it can be easily learned and done almost anywhere, whenever it is needed. No special settings or tools are required, nor are particular rituals or ceremonies necessary. The connection with the helping spirits is what is important. Anyone who has experienced this connection knows that what is sacred in Core Shamanism is the partnership with the benevolent spirits for the purpose of helping others. When we ask these spirits for assistance, motivated purely out of our desire to help ease pain and suffering of others, this sacred intention causes amazing power and healing to flow from them through us to others.

Adapted from the article “Core Shamanism and Daily Life” by Susan Mokelke, J.D. 2009 Shamanism Annual, December 2009, Issue 22, pp. 23-25(rev. January 9, 2010)