What is shamanism and how is it relevant to contemporary society?
Shamanism is humanity’s original and most enduring spirituality. Found historically on all continents, it arises from the understanding that all beings have a consciousness, that the world we perceive with our senses is just a small aspect of reality, and that humans are part of the overall web of life. We are all deeply interconnected and dependent upon one another and, therefore, our attitude towards all of life should be one of deep reverence. Our health, individually and collectively, is dependent upon our relationship to the broader community and, for our answers about life, we should look within and to the wisdom of the natural world all around us.
While this understanding was/is part of the everyday practice of indigenous societies, western culture disconnected itself from the natural and spiritual world, to our own detriment, seeking instead a relationship of dominance and exploitation. Afraid of the unpredictability and power of the natural world, European and now American culture embraced abstract rationality and sought to tame and destroy wildness, including those peoples that western society labeled “wild”—especially indigenous peoples, regarded as “savages,” but also women, who have been seen as inherently tied to their bodies, and anarchists and others who refuse conformity to the harmful values of the dominant power structure.
When Europeans imagined themselves as separate from animals—outside and superior to the natural world, rather than a subset of animals—we created the template and justification for all human hierarchies. One of the main justifications for the most egregious human cruelties throughout our history—whether the genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans, or the extermination of Jews—is that the group in question was seen as animal-like and subhuman. When we regarded animals as property, it became easy to justify the enslavement of humans as property by calling them animal-like. When land became “owned” and commodified, it opened the way to most of the ills of modern life—the commodification and ownership of our time, labor, creativity, passion, and connection in the service of capitalism.
Such disconnection and commodification has resulted in multiple levels of sickness in the human psyche and community and we are currently witnessing and feeling the everyday manifestations of this toxicity. Reconnecting to the wisdom of the natural world and our rightful place within it is a key aspect of the healing needed in the contemporary world, especially for those of us engaged in societal transformation work. Shamanism possesses a vitality based on direct access to Source through connection to nature, the Creator, and the world of the ancestors. By contrast, patriarchal religions are characterized by dogma—belief systems that could be held safely within the mind and rules for behavior rooted in repression—which often serves to keep people from direct access to Source (making them easier to control and manipulate). While the focus of belief systems such as colonization and Christianity (one of the main arms of colonialism) is about domination in the external world, their energy is also about domination in the inner world. Christianity, for instance, requires you to master the passions and appetites, our feminine and “animal nature,” which is seen as inherently contradictory to spiritual purity, paving the way for guilt and shame that disconnects us from our own power and vitality.
We have taken these ideologies of domination as far as they can go, jeopardizing the survival of our planetary home in the process. We are in the midst of a contemporary crisis that is both physical (we must change or we will perish), emotional (we are desperately lonely from our state of disconnection), and existential (a spiritual crisis of meaning in a shallow materialistic culture). The rise of interest currently in shamanism, as well as ayahuasca and other plant medicines, I believe, is due to our longing for healing and yearning to return home as a species to our rightful place—within creation and with one another.
How I came to shamanism and why shamanism is especially relevant for transgender people
As an introverted kid and outcast queer adolescent, the natural world was a refuge for me growing up. It made a lot more sense to me than the human community—which was hurtful and organized in ways that didn’t make intuitive sense to me—and I felt deep personal bonds with non-human beings. When I used to walk to and from middle school, I would reach out and touch all the plants, shaking each of their “hands” as I passed by as though I was a politician campaigning for their vote. The summer before college I worked in Yosemite National Park and would spend long days hiking alone and be out after midnight riding around the moonlit valley on my bicycle. Over my entire life, whenever I found myself in inner turmoil and didn’t know what to do, I would just take myself to the ocean, to the forest, to the mountains for solace and guidance and wouldn’t return until my distress and confusion lifted.
I first learned about shamanism in college in my Anthropology of Religion class. I still have The Peyote Hunt, in fact, as I found it to be such an impactful book. Especially when I came out as transgender, I always felt an inner affinity for shamanism. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, it felt intuitively like being trans was a parallel path to shamanism somehow—like they were intimately related, that being “different” was connected to being a healer somehow—so I always felt deep down that I was “that,” but I didn’t know what to do with it, how to use it to help people, especially as a white person in contemporary U.S. society.
When I was doing research in South Africa in 2000, having a spiritual awakening in the midst of a process of breakdown of my old ways of thinking and being, a lesbian friend of mine in Soweto was called by her ancestors to be a sangoma after a suicide attempt. I visited her several times during her training/apprenticeship and during one of these visits, her very intimidating mentor called me over. Translated by my friend, she told me that I was spiritually powerful and that I would be healing for my whole family.
I was called to shamanism like many people—through breakdown. As I was entering a traumatic major professional transition resulting from my spiritual awakening in South Africa, a choral friend told me about a shamanic community that he belonged to in Michigan—Crow’s Nest Center for Shamanic Studies—and he invited me to a weekend gathering. From the moment I arrived on the land, I felt instantly at home, the community felt very rich and spiritually mature, and the worldview of shamanic wisdom and practice intuitively made sense to me—like something I was remembering rather than something I was learning. It was so familiar it activated vague memories from other lifetimes. I’d been hovering around the fringes of shamanic community for a while, looking for my place, and it felt like I finally found it. Although I’d been doing sweat lodges in a community in the Twin Cities for a number of years, my training at Crow’s Nest gave me practical tools that I could use, not only in my own spiritual practice, but to help and heal people. I was thrilled! It was like a major puzzle piece in my inner landscape and life purpose came together.
Shamanism is fundamentally about altering consciousness so one of my main tools in my teaching and shamanic counseling practice is the paradigm shift—a change in perspective. One of the reasons that we suffer, individually and collectively, is that our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves and life are very disempowering. This ordinary state of consciousness is built on fixed ideas and assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world that come out of our dysfunctional societal training so I help people to think differently, to access new and refreshing points of view, and be guided by their heart and their own inner navigational system, which often generates profound healing.
Shamanic practitioners utilize alternate states of consciousness to heal people, mending their souls and restoring balance and wholeness. I see myself as a cultural worker, as someone who focuses more on societal pathologies than individual ones. Utilizing my academic training in gender and sexuality studies, and inspired by the lesser known first chapter of Don Miguel Ruiz’s popular book, The Four Agreements outlining the domestication process, I help people to recognize and free themselves from their societal domestication, to come out of their cultural trance and bring to consciousness what they’ve been trained to keep unconscious so that they can make more empowered choices, mending their souls and restoring balance and wholeness. I also help to call and awaken the soul of the United States, illuminating, as a shadow worker, the history of genocide and oppression at the core of our nation so that we can face and heal our past in order to chart a path towards a new future. My message for the collective is we can do better.
As a transgender person, I understand myself as a bridge. As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, I act as a translator and healer between women and men. The shamanic role is very similar. I am a bridge and translator between the human world and the spirit world, bringing wisdom and healing where and how it is needed. The shamanic role is to stand outside the human community, serving that community and holding its interests as a whole. Being transgender is very similar. You are not having the experience of human community that most people are having. You see and know things that others don’t and, since you aren’t a part of either gender camp, it is easier to hold the highest interests of the whole. It is ironic that it was my rejection by the human community that led me to my path of service to the human community.
It is a path that I walk cautiously as a person of European descent. A major aspect of white privilege is feeling entitled to access and take aspects of the cultures of others for my own personal benefit and profit, so my calling to the path of shamanism is always mediated by a sense of uneasiness and rigorous self-interrogation. While I have received shamanic training for the last decade and utilize shamanic tools in my counseling and teaching, I would never refer to myself as a shaman. Though shamanism was also present historically in various parts of Europe, my own shamanic influences definitely come from South Africa and indigenous peoples on this continent, communities in which I am a visitor.
It is especially common for white new age spiritual practitioners to selectively borrow particular practices or icons from indigenous or Asian traditions without regard to the context and ethos in which these practices or symbols arose, using them to facilitate western individualism and capitalist acquisition rather than humility and community responsibility, for instance. I’m more interested in teaching the contextual ethos because this is what most needs to shift culturally—where the greatest healing is needed.
One of the core toxic teachings of contemporary U.S. culture is to seek after and feel entitled to comfort, which tends to be antithetical to our growth and keeps us from our wisdom and spiritual and emotional maturity. One of the lessons of the vision quest as well as sweat lodge experience is that you cannot really sink into your core being and the wisdom that is found there until you let go of the frantic efforts to maintain or regain a sense of comfort. This was one of the many gifts of my time living in southern Africa as well. Although we are taught that comfort equals happiness, I have actually found a lot more happiness through being able to embrace discomfort. And part of what keeps me awake in my consciousness is that, as a non-binary transgender person living in a binary world, I experience discomfort daily.
The shamanic path is the wounded healer path. It is through experiencing and finding ways to heal your own traumas that you develop the heart and tools to be able to help heal others. Like being a transsexual, the shamanic path is the Phoenix path, the continual evolution of death and rebirth. In following my heart through life, I have been called to start over numerous times, each time losing a bit more of my suffocating ego shell and each time stepping into a better, happier, more free, more powerful version of myself. It is a very demanding journey, definitely not a path of comfort (why so many people resist the initial calling of the ancestors), but one that is richly rewarding.