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Shamanism Debunked & Demystified: Are We All The Shaman?

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by Nick Jankel

Exploding the myths of shamanism with the latest anthropological studies of ayahuasca… and instead turning to timeless wisdom that reminds us that the transformation always happens within.

This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Ripe&Ready.

Shamanism is going mainstream. Forbes, the New Yorker and even the Daily Mail have all featured shamanism and medicine plants like ayahuasca (aya) and psychedelics like LSD in the last few months. It seems that hardly a day goes by without a kind-looking, wrinkly-faced, feather-bedecked old man popping up on my Facebook feed. The exact nature of what a shaman is – something that few anthropologists or experts agree on – has fascinated me for decades since a trip through rural Oaxaca 20 years ago. I found myself alone with men engaged in the work of hongos, powerful local ‘magic’ mushrooms. I was young and without a mentor in the ways of wisdom and had not yet understood my purpose, so it was a surprise when one of the men handed me a piece of paper before I left. He had written on it: Eres el mago. You are the magician. It’s taken me a long time to understand what I think he meant.

Although shamans (or curanderos as they are sometimes called in South America) are often assumed to come from places like Mexico or darkest Peru (see Paddington Bear), the word was first coined in reference to shamans of the Tungus tribe in Siberia. However, we need not look to just the exotic places to understand what a shaman is. The historical record suggests that a type of person akin to a shaman has appeared in virtually every traditional culture on the planet, including our own. In other words, every tribe has had its share of shamans. Sadly, many of our communities no longer have theirs; and the results can be seen in the devastating problems we face – from rampant suicide and depression to climate change and poverty.

The word ‘shaman’ is notoriously hard to define categorically, whether by scholars or lay people like myself. As 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different definitions. In fact, strictly speaking, calling the diverse array of shamanic-type folk – from medicine man to wise woman – ‘shamans’, is a Western conceit. However, an underlying archetype, the ur-shaman if you will, can be a useful distinction when understanding human transformation.

What the ur-shaman does is ‘dialogue’ with something other – whether we call that nature, the universe, or the ‘spirit world’ – in order to help their community solve problems. In a nutshell, the ur-shaman brings vital information from the ‘other’ side and the Other in general to help the group stay fit and fitted. As such, they serve a clear evolutionary role to ensure the community both survives and thrives. This is a pretty good explanation of the work I do as a wisdom teacher and advisor to organisations. 

Famously characteristic of much shamanism is the role of out-of-mind or out-of-body experiences in the process of transformation; experiences that bring new insight and information into the mix. Often an indigenous shaman will have had one of these early in life (as I did), which initiates them into their work. Such altered states can provide insight and healing within minutes and hours as opposed to the weeks, months and years of a lot of therapy and meditation techniques. This experience has often been termed ‘ecstasy’. From my book, Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity & Thrive with the New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough:

The Greek word ekstasis, the root of the word ‘ecstasy’, means entrancement or astonishment. It usually refers to an experience when we are totally out of our head (and often into our heart). In many cultures, this kind of ecstasy is a normal part of life. Sufis get into this place by whirling around as they pray to Allah (little kids like to get out of their heads by spinning, too). [Some] [s]hamans get there by drinking ayahuasca.

The massive uplift of interest in shamanic paths to ecstasy (and the substances that can get us there) speaks eloquently of our urgent search for rapid paths of transformation that can help us evolve at a speed that matches the insanely rapidly-changing world we live in. In fact, one could argue that the human race – and the planet we are devastating at speed – does not have time for a lengthy spiritually-inspired ‘conscious revolution’ if that means waiting for everyone to spend 20 or 30 years meditating before they can take part in the shift we need to make now. The clock really is counting down. So although it might sound crazy, shamanic transformations – perhaps with medicine plants – might be the fastest way we have to get to the tipping point and change our consumer lifestyles before we reach irreversible planetary damage.

Through opening the doors of perception by using Nature herself, we can truly connect with Her. We can all connect in like this whether through nature walks, taking inner refuge, mindfulness meditations, vision quests, or plant-based medicines. Through reconnecting our hearts we can awaken our inner shaman and dialogue with things that are ‘Other’ to our individual egos. We can use these simple techniques to expand the circle of things we think of as ‘friends’ and therefore include the whole world in the things we want to protect with passion. We move out of I consciousness and firmly into We.

However, my own challenge to venerating shamanism without critical consciousness is that it can rob us of our own innate ‘shamanic’ capacities to heal. This doesn’t serve anyone long-term. Nobody can be with a shaman, therapist, coach or wisdom teacher 24/7. So if we are to be able to empower ourselves through the tough challenges that life inevitably brings, we must learn how to access our own inner shaman – that I  believe is within each of us. The Native American shaman Black Elk said: ‘This center is really everywhere, it is within each of us’. Contemporary scientific studies on resilience state that we all have this force within that compels us to become more generous, compassionate, wise, and whole.

Your inner shaman has a vital role to play in your life: To help you move forward, heal, and grow. In fact, it can be though of as your healing intelligence or deepest source wisdom. Whilst your defence mechanisms, which I call the drive to survive, defend against what you don’t want, your inner shaman – a metaphor for your drive to thrive – works tirelessly to help you create what you do want: What is good, noble, and true. And it appears to have the right amount of strength, and the right kinds of skills, to take on the problems you face. Your inner shaman is waiting for you right now to support you to find peace with any problem. You can access it’s wisdom through the phenomenon known as intuition, as well as dreams, insights and ideas.

As I detail in Switch On, I believe that we all have access to two strong sources of guidance. One is powered by the drive to survive. This is instinct. The other is powered by your drive to thrive. This is intuition. Knowing which is guiding you is crucial. Each emanates from a different drive. Your instincts, will usually get louder, more pressing, more ‘shouty’. Instinct is very useful to deal with real threats, but it massively limits creativity, openness, and flexibility. Intuition, the voice of the inner shaman, will stay clear, certain, and resonant, but it won’t get jumpy. It is a ‘still small voice of calm’. It emerges when you consciously turn down the chattering and nattering of the ego to hear it.

Many traditions have a name for this intuitive wisdom, which is both totally mystifying yet utterly mundane because we all sense it every day. In the Chinese tradition it is called the Tao. In Greek it is called the Logos. In Jewish mysticism, this inner wisdom is called Chochma. Chochma means ‘the potential of what is’, ‘the potential to be’ or, simply, ‘pure potential’. Chochma flashes within us when we allow it space. It cannot arise when we shut it out with stress and repetitive self-talk. Whatever we called this spark of other-worldliness entering our quotidien this-worldy reality, is it essentially intelligence bursting forth as a flash of intuition or insight. It is the inner shaman at work, ferrying information from the Other to the here-and-now.

What this suggests is that chochma/intuition/ the inner shaman is evidence that there is an intrinsic intelligence in life itself. It is this intelligence that ensures nature is always in dynamic equilibrium, in harmony. According to this school of thought, which I equate with the Western philosophy of panentheism, this intelligence is in everything. It is therefore unsurprising that, according to the book Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination, one of the few firm commonalities between all shamanic traditions is a belief that all objects are inhabited by spirit(s). Modern panentheists and ancient shamanic traditions agree: There is consciousness in everything. All is Mind and Matter.

Most wisdom traditions tell us that if we align ourselves with this natural intelligence, abide by it, we can find our way through challenging times with maximum ease and grace. When we follow the Tao or Logos – going with the flow of the inner shaman – we become what the Taoist tradition calls the zhenren, or Perfect Man; and what stoicism calls the Sage. Nature is always the alpha and omega of everything. Within Her we are born and into Her we die. As Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it:

Nature conspires with spirit to emancipate us.

Over time, if you keep on seeking out chochma within – through processing and transforming your pain as it is triggered by life’s rich array of problems —you’ll learn to trust your inner shaman to help you find the right people, ideas and projects to nourish your drive to thrive. Things may get fierce for a bit but it won’t last long as you learn how to come back to love, truth, and creativity. Your inner shaman is in a world that serves as a refuge. It’s always there for you. The inner shaman, the wisdom of chochma, is always available to support, help and guide. All you have to do is stop listening to the voices of cynicism, control and fear which are all trying to protect you from pain, disappointment and upset yet rarely serve your growth and development.

When you have the wisdom of the universe at (or in) your fingertips, no pain is too much to feel and release through your own (inner) shamanic healing. This doesn’t mean that professional or indigenous help isn’t valuable, rewarding, and, sometimes, very important (especially if you are feeling like you are in distress for an extended period of time). Every therapist, sitter, coach, shaman and healer who can hold space for us to heal and provide safety, insight, encouragement and more as we need it deserves our endless gratitude for their commitment to life itself.

However, we should never forget that this is always our life, our body.mind, and our suffering. Every plant, animal and human being on Earth was created with the potential to heal itself. New meditation apps and ancient medicine plants, whether wielded by ourselves, therapists or curanderos, can be fabulously helpful. But they are just tools, perhaps put there by Nature to help us out when we need it. They are not the thing itself. The thing itself is our own autopoetic potential to thrive. The metaphorical inner shaman does the work of becoming whole, all ways. Yes the professional and the initiated can open us up and hold us when we are most vulnerable; but they don’t ‘do’ the healing itself. Our own cells, nerves and spirit do that. How could it be any other way?

Placing your power into the hands of anyone or anything else, whether some kind of God, shaman or substance, can only ever disempower you. All the insight and intuition you need are within, right now, ready to bring more love, truth and creativity into our shared space so we can all thrive conscious community. Whilst a trip to Peru or West Africa may be a powerful opening for transformation, you don’t need to wait to enjoy direct access to the Source of all healing.

As my unexpected shamanic mentor in Oaxaca said: You are the magician.

Meet the Author: Nick Seneca Jankel is a Cambridge-educated wisdom teacher, philosopher and creator of Breakthrough Biodynamic, a pioneering science-inspired, wisdom-wired approach to leading individual, org & social change. He has helped 100+ Fortune 500 companies, scores of NGOs and governments and, as a speaker, author & TV host, millions of people across the globe to switch on, break through major problems, express purpose & thrive.

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Nick Seneca Jankel
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