A discussion on the concepts of freedom would not be complete without an understanding of the Shaman and his spiritual teachings. A Shaman is quite simply a teacher and a student. A shaman is an individual who uses a variety of methods to communicate with the universe and the spiritual world. Shamans have been known as leaders of the community and communicators of divine messages for personal growth. A Shaman experiences “religious ecstasy” when he or she accesses realms unseen to the physical world.
Shamans are said to travel between the physical and spiritual world to bring back knowledge for themselves and the community. Some actions taken by a Shaman include tunneling to an underworld of spirits, experiencing altered states through drumming, meditation or ingesting substances such as plant concoctions, and healing others’ ailments by finding the root cause on the spiritual plane.
We want to be clear that these definitions are based on our experience with Shamanic experiences. The truth is, anthropologists themselves do not have one accepted definition for the term. Some define Shamans as anyone who accesses the spirit world in altered states of consciousness, while others compare Shamans to witch doctors or prophets. Others define Shamans as schizophrenics.
The term itself has been attributed to the Evenki word saman spoken by the indigenous peoples of Siberia. The word is thought by some scholars to mean, “to know”, however this and the true origin of the word are often contested.
Some critics of the word believe it to be a racist umbrella term that ignores the vast amount of belief systems that exist underneath it. In the same way the term Native American has been applied to all indigenous peoples of the North American landmass, the term Shamanism is insufficient when describing such vastly different peoples and ideas. Most indigenous cultures do not even have a word for Shaman. We use the term with respect to all the beautifully diverse cultures that are categorized as Shamanism.
Western Europe and the Americas were first introduced to the term in the late 17th century. No one really knows when Shamanism began. We find that the lack of a solid definition and origin reaffirms our belief that Shamanism predates all modern religions.
Shamanism has been called the aboriginal root of religion. All over the world throughout history, aborigines were deeply connected to nature and used practices some of us in the modern world would consider insane. Through the use of hallucinogenic plants, drums or meditation, one could experience a spiritual cleansing and a connection to a deeper understanding of self. This is also done through shamanic journeys– deeply personal journeys sometimes performed in the mind and sometimes performed in the wilderness for days or weeks.
Looking at anthropological studies of shamanism from cultures around the world, one finds an amazing connection to Anarchy. In “Shamans Path”, controversial anthropologist Michael Harner details why Shamanism was a threat to the ruling classes:
“A reason it was wiped out is because it undermines the authority of the state and church. To have hundreds of thousands of prophets running around on the loose, in shamanism everyone is his or her own prophet, getting spiritual validation directly from the highest sources. Such people rock the boat; they are subversive. After all, if everyone is an authority, there is little possibility of creating a monopolistic business based on privileged access or right to interpret the words of a few official prophets or holy books.” (“What is a Shaman?” in Shamans Path, page 10).
Shamanism is Anarchy of the spiritual world.
In the same way that the State authorities fear an educated, organized populace, the Church authorities fear an independent, spiritually aware congregation. With its loose traditions and models for connecting to the realm beyond the five senses, Shamanism completely bypasses the monopoly on God encouraged by all political church bodies. Since Shamanism predates the modern church, it is actually the religious establishment that has been the aggressor against the free spirited pursuits of Shamans.
A wide variety of ancient cultures held beliefs that fell within the realm of Shamanism. From the indigenous tribes of America to the Celtic tribes of Western Europe, ancient civilizations shared many commonalities in their spiritual practices.
Before royal oligarchies gave spirituality a strict set of rules and guidelines, indigenous cultures had a much more personal and open religious tradition. Through Shamanism these cultures were able to advance their spiritual knowledge with every age that passed, because each generation played an active role in building their culture’s understanding of the universe. Much how our scientific research is conducted today, generation after generation would put in work to slowly chip away at the mysteries they were trying to uncover.
Shamanism operates in a similar way, but it deals with exploring the realm of the spirit, instead of the material realm of science. Generations of scientific research have allowed our species to create incredible technology, but our spiritual growth is absolutely crippled due to lack of exploration.
For the last few thousand years, much of the modern world has stopped exploring the spirit realm. The religious institutions that have had control of the spiritual dialogue for the past few millennia have completely forbidden any kind of research into these realms.
They tell us there are no new questions to be asked because they already have all the answers and to ask any kind of question is heresy. It is this kind of strict stubbornness and arrogance that has caused much of our generation’s complete disinterest in spirituality. The fact that these institutions are trying to keep us from asking questions should tell us that they are not to be trusted. They do not want us thinking philosophically because it could threaten their political power and influence.
Shamanism is different from our modern religious institutions because there is no agenda or hierarchy. There are no cloaked figures to tell you that you are not worthy and then take your money. There is no inquisition to condemn you to death if you happen to disagree with someone else’s metaphysical conclusion. There are no politics or heretics. No one is going to benefit from you financially or tell you how to think. No one is going to call you evil or demand that you be killed because you don’t comply with his or her edict.
Shamanism is less of a belief system and more of an advanced form of philosophy. Belief systems often claim to have every single correct answer in the universe, which can have a negative impact on society. If people believe there are no intellectual frontiers, they will stop looking and stop questioning. When this happens, they are cutting themselves short. Major human advancements result from individuals trying to expand the collective pool of knowledge– not from recycling the information handed down by authoritarians that has been in constant circulation for centuries.
Life is a mystery forever unraveling. Every time a question about our universe is answered, ten more surface in its place. Even if one were to live for a hundred years in daily research and meditation, he or she would still have questions. There would still be more left to uncover.
Every great teacher that has walked this earth has recognized the infinite mystery of life. This is the kind of attitude that is necessary to investigate the spirit world through shamanism. This path will not give you a prepackaged set of ideals and convictions wrapped with a bow and carried by a savior. You will be forced to create your own belief structure that will change every day with every new situation you encounter. It shouldn’t even have a name. The fact that we even call it “Shamanism” is simply because we have to attach a term to the philosophy in order to articulate the idea. Spirituality is a personal experience that should be a respected mutual interest between everyone instead of a barrier.
It is important to point out that not all Shaman traditions have been free and peaceful. As with all spiritual traditions, there have been individuals who have claimed to have a direct connection and have exacted authority over others as a result. This has resulted in many brutal Shaman regimes where human sacrifice, war and slavery were all common practices. These practices, which violate natural law through aggression, are considered Dark Shamanism. This is a common theme that you will notice throughout this whole book: spiritual belief can be used for great healing when an individual has a connection with the universe, or with god, or with their deepest selves. However, spiritual belief can also create unimaginable harm when individuals and organizations act as gatekeepers for that connection.
A Plastic Shaman is as another term for a snake oil salesman, or someone who sells fraudulent products or promotes their work as something it is not. In this case it applies to those who purport to be of Indigenous descent or have learned Native ways, yet have no direct involvement.
Furthermore, a Plastic Shaman is someone who sells Native knowledge or alleged teachings in exchange for profit. Selling sacred teachings is extremely frowned upon and disrespectful. Many Native communities in America see the modern world’s appropriation of indigenous teachings as another form of colonialism. A Plastic Shaman will claim that he or she can teach you a lifetime of understanding in a weekend if you just pay the right price. A Plastic Shaman may have learned a thing or two from a Native community to sell the lessons to curious, unaware suburban folk. Not only is this a detriment to the communities, but also to the seekers themselves who learn false teachings and likely spread those false ideas to other inquisitive minds.
This appropriation of culture and theft of long-held beliefs has caused several tribes and assemblies to declare war against Plastic Shamans. On June 10, 1993, Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations from the United States and Canada met at the Lakota Summit V. At this gathering, around 500 representatives from 40 different tribes and bands of Lakota unanimously passed the “Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality.” The declaration contains the following statement:
“We assert a posture of zero-tolerance for any “white man’s shaman” who rises from within our own communities to “authorize” the expropriation of our ceremonial ways by non-Indians; all such “plastic medicine men” are enemies of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.”
This statement from the “Resolution of the 5th Annual Meeting of the Traditional Elders Circle” drafted by several nations at Camp Rosebud Creek, Montana on October 5, 1980, amends this strong stance.
“We concern ourselves only with those people who use spiritual ceremonies with non-Indian people for profit. There are many things to be shared with the Four Colors of humanity in our common destiny as one with our Mother the Earth. It is this sharing that must be considered with great care by the Elders and the medicine people who carry the Sacred Trusts, so that no harm may come to people through ignorance and misuse of these powerful forces.”
In this spirit of sharing, we hope to learn from diverse Native cultures and evolve with respect to their ancient teachings, while incorporating newly discovered forms of healing. This brings us to the topic of NeoShamans. NeoShamanism describes modern interpretations of older forms of Shamanism and traditional teachings. NeoShamanism is not a single set of beliefs, but a variety of ways to attain altered states of mind and commune with the spirit world.
A NeoShaman may be a non-native and have no connection to any past tribe. Rather, the NeoShaman absorbs knowledge from many places and incorporates the individual pieces into a tapestry of spiritual awareness.
With the advent of computers and rapidly expanding technologies, many students of Shamanism have learned to alter their states of consciousness, for the purpose of healing, using computers, binaural beats and other nontraditional methods. The terms Techno-Shaman and Crypto-Shaman have even come into use in recent years.
What is the difference between a Plastic Shaman and a NeoShaman? This is a matter of great debate and personal opinion. We believe that encouraging peoples from around the world to share and learn from one another is a positive action that will propel humanity forward, not backward. However, we understand that many Native communities look back at the history of relations between themselves and outsiders and have little desire to invite the Western world into their Sacred Teachings. We respect these decisions and hope that Non-Natives interested in learning Native ways seek out Native teachers with tribe affiliation and a true understanding of the culture. We also hope those interested in spirituality and Shamanism are able to learn from many sources and decide which path to God resonates the strongest.
As long as we learn with an open mind and do not to speak for tribes, peoples and cultures in which we are not well versed, we can build bridges between these diverse worlds without destroying the individual cultures. In fact, the idea of keeping a powerful interpretation of god and the Universe all to a small group of people rings of elitism. At the same time it is up to each community and each individual to decide what teachings they share and with whom.
The fact that various groups of aristocrats from different cultural backgrounds have managed to stamp a copyright on spirituality is itself a complete sacrilege. Everyone should have their own religion that they ponder on and share. If more people proclaimed their beliefs aloud, the good ideas would be more likely to surface and become more popular while the bad ideas would dwindle off pretty easily. The best ideas would be passed along to the next generation and molded based on whatever new information came in during that time. This Shamanic worldview would be a constantly changing collective religion actually built by everyone in society. This would eliminate a lot of the spiritual segregation that is caused by modern religion, because participants would be encouraged to learn from one another instead of look down on one another.
If people spoke to each other philosophically on a regular basis and reached into the spirit realm using meditation and psychedelics, we would be able to achieve the same kind of breakthroughs in the spirit realm that we have in the material realm, bringing us much closer to peace.