The word “shaman” has a long, convoluted etymological history. One story says that it comes from the Sanskrit sramana-s, which referred to an ascetic Buddhist, which morphed into sha men in Chinese.
From there, it was used to refer to the priests of people in the Ural-Altaic area. This isn’t the only area of the world with shamans, though — different cultures and religions all over the globe have independently evolved their own varieties of shamanism, even without any contact with each other.
Today, modern shamanism refers to the practice of journeying into the spirit worlds for the purposes of healing, magic, and divination. It’s closer to a method than a religion, so it’s possible to find neoshamans and shamanic practices within every belief system.
Eclecticism in Modern Shamanism
Eclecticism in Paganism refers to the idea of borrowing practices from multiple cultures or faiths to create a unified spirituality.
An eclectic Wiccan, for example, might use a generally Wiccan ritual structure, pay homage to a blend of Greek, Egyptian, and Celtic deities, and incorporate things like singing bowls and yoga into their practice.
Modern shamanism is eclectic almost by definition. For people who don’t come from a culture with a strong shamanic tradition, or whose cultural shamanic traditions have been suppressed, it’s a way for them to re-learn the skills needed to navigate the spirit worlds.
Since neoshamanism describes a method more than a religion, modern shamanism is almost always used as part of a broader spiritual or magical practice.
For this reason, there are shamanic druids, shamanic Wiccans, and any other permutation you can imagine. Modern shamanism doesn’t conflict with the majority of Pagan beliefs, so it’s easy to incorporate into an eclectic practice.
Common Beliefs in Modern Shamanism
Modern shamanism has a few central beliefs. These can vary a bit from shaman to shaman, culture to culture, and religion to religion.
As a generalization, neoshamans believe:
- In animism. All things in the world, from plants, to stones, to locations, to natural phenomena, have spirits, and these spirits can be interacted with. Some are benevolent, while others are malicious.
- In non-ordinary reality. The physical world is ordinary reality. The spiritual realms belong to non-ordinary reality.
- In the three worlds. Non-ordinary reality is easily divided into three realms: the lower, middle, and upper worlds. Each one has its own denizens, geography, and purpose for the shaman.
- In shamanic journeying. The shaman can undertake a journey into non-ordinary reality for the purpose of communicating with the spirit denizens of one of the three worlds.
- In reciprocity. The spirit world is distinct, but not separate, from the physical world, and part of the shaman’s role is to maintain balance between the two, as well as between their communities and their environment. A shaman may undertake a journey to communicate with the spirits of plants, animals, and places around them, to ensure that this balance is maintained.
- In divination. Since all things have spirits, and ordinary and non-ordinary realities are inextricably intertwined, shamans are receptive to signs from spirits. They might go on a journey for the sole purpose of divination, but many shamans also pay attention to signs and omens from spirits in ordinary reality.
Common Practices in Modern Shamanism
The most well-known practice in neoshamanism is the shamanic journey. In this, the shaman experiences an altered mental state that allows them to enter non-ordinary reality. After that, the shaman seeks out information by communicating with the residents of whatever realm they have chosen to enter.
Methods for entering non-ordinary reality differ depending on where the shaman wishes to go.
Going to the lower world usually means finding a hole at the base of a tree, a cave, or some other entry into the earth and descending that way. Going up to the upper world means flying, climbing, or being carried by spirit guides. The middle world is the spiritual reflection of the ordinary world, so it doesn’t have a special entrance.
There are many ways to achieve the altered state necessary for shamanic journeying. Drumming, chanting, and rattling are the most common.
Some neoshamans use binaural beats in the theta range to induce trance states. Other shamans may choose to use entheogens, but these are less popular for the purpose of shamanic journeying.
While undertaking a journey, the shaman is fully awake and aware of the world around them. The process is a bit like having one foot in the spirit world, and one foot in ordinary reality — the shaman must be able to navigate both safely.
See article: Shamanic Realms: A Guide to Shamanic Worlds.
One common healing practice in neoshamanism is soul retrieval. Whenever a person experiences trauma, they lose a bit of their vital essence — not unlike a lizard dropping its tail in order to escape.
This can result in a feeling of incompleteness, disconnection, and ongoing pain. Shamans journey to non-ordinary reality to find and retrieve these lost pieces, reuniting them with their owner so that emotional and mental healing can begin.
Entheogens in Modern Shamanism
Traditionally, shamans have used entheogens in order to bring about trance states, for spiritual and mental healing, for dissolving the border between the self and nature, for divination, for connecting to the spirits of a location, and for spirit work.
Some neoshamans continue to use them today, especially for spiritual, mental, or physical healing and connecting to the spirits of nature.
It is important to note that if one decides to experiment with entheogens in their shamanic practice, it is very important to be in a pleasant state of mind before embarking on the journey.
Setting is also very important. It is recommended to be in a quiet, safe, and natural environment to experience the full connection to nature that is often reported after ingesting entheogens.
Working With Spirits
Shamans work with spirits in order to learn hidden information and maintain the balance between their communities and nature.
For example, a shaman may go into non-ordinary reality in order to get help diagnosing an illness in someone, and speak to spirits to find a cure.
A shaman in a farming community might journey to strike a bargain with the spirits of deer and crows, promising them offerings to get them to leave the community’s food alone.
Spirits can take many forms. Shamans often have animal guides which serve to protect and lead them through the spirit worlds, and can even be sent on short errands for the shaman.
These aren’t the same as the spirit animals of some indigenous American religions — a shaman’s animal guides may come, go, and change as they please, and serve a different function than spirit animals do.
It’s important to note that not all spirits are good. They’re as individual as people. Some are friendly and helpful. Some are friendly, but not necessarily helpful. Some are helpful, but not necessarily friendly. Some are just malevolent.
For this reason, shamanic journeying isn’t a hundred percent safe — the shaman needs to be on their guard against malevolent entities, and understand ways to bribe, trick, or escape them if need be.
Astral Travel in Modern Shamanism
Astral travel is another method by which modern shamans can journey outside of ordinary reality. While it’s similar, it’s not the same as shamanic journeying.
Here are a few key differences between Astral Travel and Shamanic Journeying:
- Shamanic journeys are usually shorter. In a journey, the shaman has a goal — get in, find out what they need, and get out again. In astral travel, this may not be the case.
- Astral travel separates the individual completely from their physical body. A shaman doesn’t necessarily have to fully leave their body to journey — hence the idea of them living with one foot in ordinary reality, and one in the spirit realms. Astral travel involves the traveler leaving their body, which requires a deep trance state.
- Shamanic journeying conserves energy. In a journey, the shaman enters by a known gateway, goes where they need to, and saves energy by retracing their steps. In astral travel, this isn’t the case — the traveler can keep going until they’re tired out, at which point they will return to their body.
It’s also quite common for modern shamanic practitioners to use psychedelic plants for astral travel. Their strong effects can effectively separate the soul from the body, allowing for easier traveling through the astral realm.
Astral travel also takes place in a deep trance state with far less awareness of the outside world, so a deep, psychedelic trance can be helpful. Memory recall also tends to be weaker in astral travel than it is in shamanic journeying, which psychedelics can help with.
Since the shaman has less awareness of the outside world during astral travel, setting is very important — especially when using entheogens. A quiet, safe, natural environment is the best place to attempt their use.
Getting Started With Modern Shamanism
There are plenty of books and online resources for beginners looking to undertake their first shamanic journey, but it’s a good idea to try a journey with a trained shaman first.
Remember, not all spirits you will encounter are kind or helpful. It’s possible for a beginner to get themselves in trouble if they don’t yet have the skills to avoid it.
You might want to begin by looking for a shamanic teacher in your area, or seeing if there are any group rituals available.
Check your local Meetup groups, or a nearby metaphysical shop for details. A group ritual can help give you a safe, more structured experience that will allow you to get used to the physical, mental, and emotional sensations of shamanic journeying.
It’s a helpful way to practice your journeying skills so you can undertake them safely on your own.
Neoshamanism is a way for people who have lost their cultural traditions to re-learn how to interact with spirits. It encourages people to maintain the balance between themselves, their communities, and the natural world, and offers a unique path to physical, mental, and emotional healing.
No matter what religion you are, or what your ritual practices might be, experiencing a shamanic journey can open your eyes to an entirely new way of seeing and helping the world.