PART ONE: How Does One Become a Shaman?
An Explanation in the Language of Ordinary Consciousness
The first snow has recently fallen in coastal Maine, warning of the fast approach of the cold, crystalline time of the year, yet autumn, the season of the shamanic West, will prevail until the winter solstice, now only weeks away.
“Introduction to Feminist Shamanism” will be a category on my new Substack teaching page, Slow Thunder Feminist Shamanic Teachings, which will be available in the new year by paid subscription. For now, I’m posting things you can read for free on this page, to give you an idea of what to expect should you sign up for the teaching page.
This post is longer than usual, and there’s a reason for that, so please bear with me. I want to attempt to guide you from thinking about the topic of shamanic initiations (the first part) towards “seeing” what they’re like from a mythic, shamanic perspective (the second part). Because it’s too long for Substack to email, I’m creating separate posts for each part.
I’m sharing this particular introductory teaching with you at this time—the time of the shamanic West, where it is forever autumn—because all shamans are initiated through the shamanic West. This is because the shamanic West is the place where all of our illusions about the nature of reality and about our own natures, are shattered, often in physically and psychologically traumatic ways, resulting in what can feel like ego death. Surviving such trauma, being able to tolerate the accompanying profound loss of one’s sense of self, and accepting the calling that comes during the worst of it, are prerequisites for becoming a shaman.
If the calling is accepted, what follows is a very specific sequence of psychological events, beginning with a particular kind of introspection. If that goes well, the shaman-to-be achieves a very specific kind of humility, facilitating a profound change in her self-perception. Provided one achieves that state, one then becomes able to deal with the initiation’s aftermath and to begin the long process of learning to walk with one foot in the world of physical reality, and the other in the world of shamanic reality, without losing one’s psychological balance. It’s a long and arduous process, and one that not all who are called can tolerate.
I recently read “"The Body is a Doorway", a very interesting article by Sophie Strand, about the ways trauma may transform the body into a “doorway” by opening it in mysterious ways to enhanced sensory and psychic experience, which are also hallmarks of shamanic initiatory experiences. In the article Strand mentions that many spiritual healers and teachers tell us that trauma is an initiation, which begs the questions:
Into what other realm of consciousness has one’s trauma initiated one?
How does one discern whether or not one’s traumatic experience was the beginning of a shamanic initiation?
What are the distinguishing characteristics of genuine shamanic initiations?
These are important questions, because in today’s shamanic world, very few people appear to understand what it actually takes to become a shaman. The word shaman is frequently and mistakenly used to describe any number of people engaged in any number of healing practices, when in fact, very few of them are actually genuine shamans.
So...what’s the skinny on this topic? Here’s my take on it, from two very different perspectives.
I’ll begin with a straightforward explanation written in the language patterns of ordinary, everyday ego consciousness, a function of the Masculine principle, which you can take in intellectually. I’ll then describe the process of how one becomes a shaman in the form of a feminist shamanic myth told in the language patterns of nonordinary, mythic consciousness, a function of the Feminine principle, and the place where all shamanic events occur, which may enable you to take in the teaching at a much deeper level.
How Does One Become a Shaman?
PART ONE: An Explanation in the Language of Ordinary Consciousness
Perhaps the well known Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof offers us the best description of how one becomes a shaman from a psychiatric perspective:
“Genuine shamans have had powerful, unusual experiences and have managed to integrate them in a creative and productive way. They have to be able to handle everyday reality as well as, or even better than, their fellow tribesmen. In addition, they have experiential access to other levels and realms of reality and can facilitate nonordinary states of consciousness in others for healing and transformative purposes. They thus show superior functioning and ‘higher sanity,’ rather than maladjustment and insanity.” (29-30)1
My own feminist shamanic description of a shaman dovetails very closely with Grof’s:
“A shaman is a person who has been chosen by specifically shamanic archetypal spirits and called to a shamanic path by means of a traumatic initiatory trial, which may occur on both physical and metaphysical levels of experience. Having survived that trial, the shaman-to-be has gone on to learn how to manage and integrate the shamanic energies that have come to them during the trial. They have successfully negotiated the personal and social aftermath of the trial, and have learned to maintain balance between their access to shamanic reality—which is accomplished during shamanic journeys by means of altering brain wave patterns with specific kinds of percussion—and their ability to function in physical reality. The shaman then functions effectively at personal and social levels, while offering their shamanic skills to the members of their community.”
According to Joseph Campbell, there are two types of shamans—creative shamans, and traditional, or “priestly” shamans, which could perhaps be more accurately described as tribal healers. The main difference between a creative shaman and a traditional, or "priestly" tribal healer is that the latter type of healer will usually have gone through a long period of training in the use of ancient, established ways of healing that must be meticulously learned and strictly adhered to in order to produce predictable and desired results in their healing efforts.
A creative shaman, on the other hand, becomes a shaman by surviving the trauma and integrating the meaning of a shamanic initiatory crisis. Ideally, an experienced shaman, such as the Maliseet spiritual elder Light Mother, below, will be found, a daunting undertaking in today’s world.. Such elders can help the shaman-to-be move past the trauma, oversee the integration of her experience, and guide her through subsequent initiations.
Such teachers can also offer the shaman-to-be basic training regarding how to correctly direct her shamanic energy and wield her shamanic power for healing purposes, and how to work effectively with the shamanic forms and archetypal structures that make up the shamanic cosmology of the geographic region in which she will be working.
Ultimately, however, the creative shaman will blaze her or his own shamanic path when necessary in order to accomplish healing ends that cannot be achieved by usual means. Feminist shamans are creatives.
Addressing a Contemporary Illusion
In today’s eclectic healing communities, some believe that one can become a shaman by reading books, or taking shamanic workshops, or apprenticing to various teachers, many of whom are combining esoteric practices from disparate geographies and calling such practices shamanism. The fact is that however much training one may undertake, or however much one may altruistically desire to be of help to others, one cannot become a genuine shaman by such means. One is called to become a shaman by the shamanic archetypes inhabiting the land upon which one walks, and such calls often involve both physical and psychological suffering. In fact, many of those called to be shamans are often resistant to the call, and reluctant to accept it, with good reason, for accepting it involves sacrifices and additional initiations and trials that most people would not consciously seek out and would quite naturally run from if confronted with them. Many of those called to a shamanic path may endure years of internal conflict and doubt about having accepted their calling. In many cases, during the period of resistance the shaman-to-be may suffer from vague but insistent and unpleasant physical symptoms that are only relieved by practicing shamanic ways.
While there are great dangers inherent in either accepting or rejecting such a call, there are even greater dangers inherent in seeking such a call oneself, for the path is strewn with pitfalls and seductions that are difficult enough to handle for those truly called, and often impossible to handle for those not truly called. Ideally, a person who has physically and psychologically survived a genuine shamanic initiatory crisis will eventually accept the calling, train with an experienced shaman to learn how to manage the energies that have come to her during her initiation, and how to enlist the aid of those energies in efforts to heal or help others. Such an apprenticeship, whatever its length, is critical to the development of the called shaman’s eventual ethical stance and shamanic skill level.
The form that the shamanic initiation experience and subsequent training takes may vary from one geographic location or culture to another. The shaman-to-be may experience one or more of a variety of initiatory phenomena. Australian Aborigines may experience auto initiation, while in some cultures, shamanic initiation is induced by an experienced shaman who has recognized the potential of the initiate. In others, dreams or visions of dismemberment or engorgement, eventually followed by dreams or visions of being physically recreated or reconstructed by powerful spirit beings may signal the calling. Elsewhere, strange, lingering illnesses may indicate such a calling, as may physical ordeals involving the elements of earth, air, fire, or water, which are known as "elemental” initiations.
Elemental initiations are generally events involving physical trauma of such magnitude that the person’s soul leaves her body, fleeing into shamanic reality, seeking relief. Such a calling is generally a spontaneous event, rendering the person suddenly and forever changed and transformed, and sometimes physically disfigured as well. During the out-of-body phase of this type of initiation, the shaman-to-be’s willingness and ability to take up and carry the burden of walking a shamanic path are determined by the spirits who will become her guides and teachers on that path, should she survive her ordeal. My personal calling was of this kind, coming as it did during a sudden, traumatic encounter with fire. Whatever form the initiation may take, the period of training following the initiatory crisis may range from decades in an Amazonian shamanic culture to only a few years in others.
Characteristics of Shamanic Initiations
Whatever one’s geographical or cultural orientation may be, genuine shamanic initiations are generally characterized by four things.
1. The first is an ego-shattering trauma of such severity that the soul/psyche of the shaman-to-be flees physical reality, leaving everyday, ordinary ego-consciousness behind, and finds itself in shamanic reality. There it encounters the archetypal energies responsible for the calling, who generally present themselves as animal spirits. It is these archetypes that will oversee the shaman-to-be’s development and further trials and tests on a shamanic level.
2. Next, the exact nature of her particular calling, and her ability and willingness to take up the burden of shamanic healing are determined by the shamanic spirit guides who have called her to that path. If this evaluation meets the requirements of these guides, the initiate must then decide whether to accept or decline her calling. If she accepts the calling, her consciousness will be forever changed by the psychic restructuring that then occurs.
3. The third is that the shamanic initiatory trial and calling is generally characterized by repeated and consistent contact by one or more animal spirits in shamanic visions, or in numinous dreams before, during and/or following the initiatory trauma. There may also be startling synchronistic experiences in physical reality with animals who are the physical embodiments of these archetypes. During this time ancestral spirit guides may also initiate contact with the shaman-to-be. As Drury states, “In all cases, however, spirit guides are perceived as crucial to the shaman’s resolve and embodiments of his psychic and magical strength.”2
4. Finally, when the initiate’s consciousness refocuses on the world of matter, she must learn to simultaneously “walk in two worlds,” that of physical reality and that of shamanic reality, and to function at high levels in both worlds while maintaining her psychological balance.
Often the psyche/soul of such a person is very reluctant to return to the body and to everyday life in the mundane realm of physical reality after this numinous experience, having found the shamanic spirit world a preferable place to reside. Having committed her life to shamanic healing work while there, however, her psyche does eventually return its attention to the demands of the everyday world, for it must do so in order to fulfill the calling. Little does she know that the path upon which she put her feet during the initiation crisis, and must now walk, is but the very beginning of a winding and arduous lifelong journey.
In a very real sense, having survived the shamanic initiatory trail, the shaman is “new” again, and must learn all over again how to negotiate the demands and expectations of the physical world— which may now appear to her to be a dream world—while simultaneously maintaining her connections with the shamanic spirit world, which may now appear to her to be more real in many ways than the physical world.
The called shaman’s survival of the initiatory trauma is only the first of many shattering tests that she may be called upon to negotiate as she attempts to honor her path. The path of a called shaman requires that the person accepting that calling be able to tolerate things that most people would doubtless find intolerable. These tests can be spiritual, physical, psychological or social. But they all share one thing in common—each requires that the emerging shaman learn to maintain her psychological balance and her ability to simultaneously function at a high level in both shamanic and physical realities, regardless of whatever challenges she faces in either world at any given time. Yet paradoxically, each time the shaman-to-be successfully negotiates another test, her achievement sets her apart ever more from the concerns of ordinary culture and people, so that in the end, her final and greatest test may be whether or not she can tolerate the social isolation and loneliness that can also be part of this path.
It is crucial that the shaman-to-be find competent shamanic guidance for the integration, centering and grounding that must occur following the initiation crisis. Sometimes handling the despair that may occur when one returns to ordinary reality with its mundane life concerns following such experiences can be challenging. Often the shamanic visionary experiences accompanying genuine shamanic initiations are generally of such a profoundly beautiful and moving nature that one would prefer to remain in the ecstatic states they engender over returning to the concerns of daily life in physical reality. Or the shaman-to-be may be so disoriented by the experience that she struggles to find her way back into ordinary consciousness. In any case, a competent, physical world shamanic teacher can lead the way until the person has stabilized psychologically and has recovered from the trauma involved in the initiation.
1 Grof, Stanislav. Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death & Transcendence in Psychotherapy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.
2 Drury, Neville. The Elements of Shamanism. Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset. Element Books Limited, 1989. (27)
You can learn more about feminist shamanism here.