Who should be a shaman is a thorny issue, because while our shared human physiology allows everyone to learn how to experience visionary states, that alone does not necessarily make a person a shaman. It takes an enormous amount of knowledge, discipline, and experience to be able to walk in two worlds at once, never mind accomplish anything constructive. If you have a functional indigenous community, your elders observe the little ones. Those that have the self-awareness, thirst for knowledge, compassion for others, and willingness to persist in learning how what happens in the visionary states affects the ordinary world in the long-term, earn participation in ceremonies and stories. Those who are ‘called’ are those who find themselves dropping into visionary states spontaneously.
An average training period is about 20 years, partly because that is how long it takes to see how the ripples from the visionary states manifest in the 3-d. Until you have experienced that, you don’t have perspective. Learning how to integrate visionary and ordinary states of mind and/or becoming able to choose when and how one changes states is challenging at best, and most Westerners practicing shamanic techniques are trainees learning from trainees. Experienced shamans from tribal cultures are limited in what they can offer westerners and westerners are limited in what they can take because of that same culture.
And yes, there is fakery. Unfortunately, it sometimes it takes drastic results, like the guy who is being prosecuted for killing off his groupies by mismanaging his sweat lodge in Sedona a few years back, to get people to take responsibility for themselves. My dad used to say that anyone who wants to be a shaman automatically disqualifies themselves. That episode certainly illustrates how to prove you aren’t a healer or an apt student on your right path. However there is also profound ignorance and desperation. I think it is important to remember that most of what is written about shamanism was written down by anthropologists and others who stood outside both the culture and the visionary experience. Many people resort to fakes because they have no basis for comparison. It is a really difficult situation, especially for those for whom working in the visionary realms is not a choice.
My question is how do those who are genuinely called find their right path when their families have responded to the visionary state with labels of mental illness, or evil; and instead of teaching them have isolated, medicated, disowned, even murdered, their shamans for generations? One of my own major challenges, unfortunately, is the spiritual lineage on my mother’s side that has been so damaged for so long it tends to produce seriously troubled individuals . My mother was not only an asthmatic and an alcoholic, but a personality disorder. It was a great relief to me when I understood that that a borderline personality disorder is on the border of a psychotic breakdown, since one definition of a spontaneous shamanic initiation is that it is an atypical short-term psychotic break.
Psychotics are defined as having lost touch with reality. Shamans on the other hand tend to be astute observers of patterns of behavior and movement through time and space and profoundly pragmatic grounded people. Cross-culturally shamanic ceremony tends to focus on putting things into a harmonious resilient, right order that sustains life. The shaman comes out the other side of their ‘psychotic’ or overwhelming visionary experience with the ability to negotiate both the visionary and mundane worlds to the benefit of their communities. Most shamanic traditions assume that the fulfillment of the initiatory experience is service to the greater community. Love and humor are fundamental forces of healing in shamanism.
I have been lucky enough to have had a cultural context for my visionary experiences as you can see from this blog. While having my mother and her good friend Dr. Felicitas Goodman consider me and my adolescent visionary experiences as part of the study of religious altered states of consciousness wasn’t exactly loving, being treated as an experimental subject also wasn’t particularly destructive. And I was supported through my initiation by the horse nation. I find myself considering the possibility that shamanic initiation may well be one way indigenous cultures made sure that adolescents were inoculated against psychopathic personality disorders.
It is a long and difficult road to find a place of personal balance for those who have no choice in following the shamanic path. Questions of who to learn from and what path to follow really come down to a question of personal integrity. My advice is to keep in mind that kindness, humor, and equanimity arise out of self-knowledge. That will tell you if you are on the right track, and how to choose some one to learn from/with. Offering a sound and honorable alternative doesn’t leave me anytime or energy for attacking fakes or for teaching them. I have to trust that they will fall by the wayside from their own lack of substance.
And remember that the planet really is in desperate need of people who are willing to devote themselves to learning how to sustain a harmonious flow of life-energy for the whole ecosystem and opening the doors for the next generations of humans to do the same.
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