The shaman lives a dualistic existence. Perpetually half in the mundane world, and half in the world of spirit, they serve as liaisons between ordinary and non-ordinary reality.
Shamanic practices give them access to hidden information, allowing them to function as healers, diviners, and maintainers of the balance between humanity and the rest of nature.
Shamanic rituals have a distinct method and purpose that separates them from other earth-based spiritual practices:
Connecting with Nature
While witches and druids connect with nature because it embodies the divine, shamans connect with it for a very practical reason — their communities live there.
In order for a shaman to be able to speak with the spirits of animals and plants, they have to understand them. They must connect with nature, familiarize themselves with the flora and fauna of their home turf, and be able to go into the spirit realms to ask for help, bargain with these spirits, and ensure the longevity of their communities by maintaining a balanced give-and-take relationship between people and the environment.
Shamanic practices that involve bargaining and communicating with the spirits of nature require a deep connection to nature by necessity.
Many traditional shamanic practices rely on the use of entheogens, psychedelic plants and fungi that trigger a trancelike, visionary experience.
The visionary state brought on by entheogen use is an expression of the plant’s wisdom and experience. This gives the shaman a new perspective and ability to connect to the knowledge of the natural world.
Psychedelics are a bit less popular with neoshamans, partly due to legality, partly due to the modern interpretation of the shamanic journey. That’s not to say that modern shamans don’t use entheogens — many of them find these plants and fungi extremely useful for astral travel, as well as healing trauma and mental, emotional, and physical maladies.
Shamanic journeying is probably one of the best-known modern shamanic practices, and forms the cornerstone of neoshamanism. While traditional shamans undertake shamanic journeying as well, these journeys vary from culture to culture.
Shamanic journeying is the pursuit of hidden knowledge. To perform one, the shaman first must have a question that needs answering. They then trigger an altered mental state that allows them to enter one of the spirit worlds — all while remaining aware of the physical world around them.
This state can be achieved through drumming, chanting, rattling, or even deep concentration. An experienced shaman can even journey while dancing and moving through ordinary reality. The ability to walk this very thin line and exist in two places at once is the shaman’s most useful skill.
While in the spirit worlds, the shaman can talk to the spirits of animals, plants, locations, natural phenomena, enlightened beings, or ancestors to find the answer to their question.
Some of these beings are kind and helpful, but some are tricksters. Some spirits might even try to steal from or hurt people.
Shamans are aware that not all spirits are benevolent, and have the skills they need to tactfully navigate around the malevolent ones.
Shamanic Healing & Soul Retrieval
Traditionally, shamans are healers. In modern shamanism, healing is still one of the most needed of all shamanic practices.
A lot of people go through life feeling disconnected and hurt. Many of them are caught up in a traumatic event that occurred long ago. This is where soul retrieval can help.
In modern shamanism, it’s believed that a person loses some of their vital essence every time they experience trauma. This tiny piece of the self splits away and escapes as a protective mechanism.
People who suffer long-term effects from traumatic events have difficulty healing without being reunited with the pieces of themselves that were lost. There are shamanic rituals, called soul retrievals, that allow the shaman to journey to the spirit worlds to search for these pieces of the soul and bring them back home.
Shamans are also able to help heal other injuries and illnesses, too. Since the spirit worlds are home to the spirits of all things, the shaman can journey there to ask for help in diagnosing an illness. They can also speak to the spirits of medicinal plants to discover a treatment.
Some shamanic practices are group rituals. The shaman may drum, rattle, or chant as they help guide a journey for a bunch of individuals.
This can allow the individuals to seek their own healing in the places the shaman guides them to. Most people find group shamanic rituals to be a tremendously positive, healing, uplifting experience.
Part of the shaman’s role is as a diviner. Many shamanic practices rely on interpreting signs from both the mundane world and the spirit worlds. They may act as interpreters of dreams, use various divination tools, or journey into non-ordinary reality to ask for information directly.
Every shaman has a group of spirit guides. These may be the spirits of animals and plants, ancestors, deceased shamans, or beings akin to guardian angels.
It’s not uncommon for a shaman to ask one of these beings to go into the spirit worlds for them, and retrieve the information they need. This may be about events in the future, but is just as likely to be about the past or present.
Meetings with the Spirits/Ancestors
The purpose of a ritual like the shamanic journey is to meet and communicate with spirits. These spirits can take all forms, and vary depending on where they live.
Spirits that dwell in the lower spirit world are usually animals, plants, locations, and natural phenomena. In cultures that recognize the fae, some types of fae may live here.
The middle world is the spiritual counterpart to ordinary reality. Spirits that dwell in the upper world are usually enlightened beings, angelic spirits, ancestors, and deceased shamans. The shaman chooses which world to go to depending on the nature of the questions they need answered, or what sort of spirit they wish to meet.
Asceticism means to abstain from pleasurable sensory experiences. An ascetic may fast, take a vow of silence, or renounce material possessions.
Some, but not all, shamans are ascetics. Living a minimalist lifestyle can help bring the shaman closer to nature, since they aren’t taking any more from it than is strictly necessary.
In some cultures and religions, ascetic shamanic practices are believed to make one more spiritually pure. Some shamans find that this is helpful when trying to gain passage to upper world of non-ordinary reality — a shaman must be spiritually healthy before they can enter it.
Dancing is a way to enter a trance. Modern shamanic practices frequently use dance to trigger the altered mental state necessary for journeying, divination, and healing.
There are no set steps in ecstatic dance — the entire purpose is to surrender one’s desire for control, and allow themselves to move freely to the rhythm of the music.
It’s essentially a form of moving meditation, which, for many people, brings about feelings of connection with others, nature, and the divine, a reduction in stress, feelings of joy, and a deep serenity.
Medicine Songs & Shamanic Music
Shamanic music is the music used in shamanic rituals. Most of the time, this features repetitive percussion from a drum or rattle.
Music serves multiple purposes in shamanism. To the Tuvan people, the shaman’s song recounts the shaman’s place of birth, training, initiation, and shamanic experience, which serves to announce them to the spirits.
In modern shamanism, the percussion serves to induce the altered mental state necessary for shamanic journeying, as well as guide journeyers in group rituals — changes in the tempo tell the journeyers when it’s time to come back.
In Korean shamanism, music serves the combined purpose of triggering the trance state, placating the deity possessing the shaman, and sending it back to the spirit world at the end of the ritual.
In some cultures and traditions, music serves the role of a medicine song. This is a special song or chant that activates the powers of plant medicine in shamanic healing.
Vision quests are a specific type of spiritual journey undertaken by people of certain indigenous American cultures and religions. These may be undertaken as rites of passage, or as a way to communicate with a spirit for help or protection.
The person on the quest spends time alone in nature, fasting and exposed to the elements, waiting for a vision to come to them. The wisdom granted by this vision is then brought back to the quester’s community. It’s a process that’s at once deeply personal, and also a source of collective support.
Shamanic practices vary widely depending on the cultural and religious framework they spring from, but all of them involve communicating with spirits.
No matter whether they are a traditional Tuvan shaman or a neoshaman from California, all shamans delve deep into the spirit realms in search of wisdom and healing for themselves, their communities, and the environment around them.