FSS Polestar: What is a shaman?

What is a shaman? How does one become one?
The re-emergence of shamanism in the West has been largely driven by the pioneering work of the late anthropologist Dr. Michael Harner, founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. His lifetime of research, experimentation, and personal exploration led him to develop Core Shamanism, an authentic and powerful form of shamanic practice that is not bound to culturally-specific ceremony and ritual. Its emphasis is on universal, near universal, and common features of shamanism, making it the ideal methodology for present-day practitioners to engage in shamanism while respecting the rites and customs of native peoples. Since shamanic knowledge was overwhelmingly lost to Western society centuries ago due to religious oppression, the Foundation’s programs in Core Shamanism are particularly intended to help contemporary people reacquire access to their rightful spiritual heritage through quality workshops and training courses.

What is shamanism?

As shamanism has grown in popularity, confusion about what it is, and specifically who and what a shaman is, has also grown. The term “shaman” is often loosely applied to anyone claiming an affinity for a natural lifestyle or a nature-based spirituality.

Michael Harner, after noting that “definitions are often a contentious matter,” went on to provide the following: “Shamanism is universally characterized by an intentional change in consciousness to engage in purposeful two-way interaction with spirits. Its most distinctive feature, which is not universal, is the out of body journey to other worlds.” He pointed out that not all shamans journey, or journey in the same way, but “what they do share is disciplined interaction with spirits in non-ordinary reality to help and heal others.” (Cave and Cosmos, pp. 47-48.)

Animism vs. shamanism

Where things often get confusing is in understanding the difference between animism and shamanism. Animism is a worldview that posits the aliveness of all things in the universe, as well as the unity and harmony of all life. It sees humans as a part of the living universe, but not superior to any aspect of it. This view is universally accepted in shamanism. That said, though all shamans could be considered animists, not all animists are shamans. This is because they don’t necessarily do what shamans do (see above).

Who can be called a shaman, and how do they that achieve that status?

In traditional shamanic cultures, shamans do not proclaim themselves as such. Someone who works with spirits to help their people is often named a shaman by that community if they are successful in their work.

”Shamans are often called ‘see-ers’ (seers), or ‘people who know’ in their tribal languages, because they are involved in a system of knowledge based on firsthand experience. Shamanism is not a belief system. It’s based on personal experiments conducted to heal, to get information, or do other things. In fact, if shamans don’t get results, they will no longer be used by people in their tribe. People ask me, ‘How do you know if somebody’s a shaman?’ I say, ‘It’s simple. Do they journey to other worlds? And do they perform miracles?'” (Michael Harner, Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone, p. 1.)

The preferred term for modern persons who engage in shamanism is “shamanic practitioner.” This denotes someone who has learned the methods and discipline of shamanic practice, and works to help and heal others with these methods. If a shamanic practitioner is successful with clients over time, other people may call them a shaman, but it is considered inappropriate to name oneself a shaman.

How does one become a shaman?

Michael discusses this at length in his book Cave and Cosmos (pp. 177, 179, 182). Traditional methods include inheriting shamanic status from an ancestor; becoming a shaman through life-threatening illness or initiation; being born with shamanic gifts which are recognized and supported by elders; learning directly from the spirits; and in some cultures, the Shuar, for example, knowledge of the way to power is bought from a master shaman. There are many paths, including study and practice with reputable teachers. But the path one travels to become a shaman is not as important as a powerful relationship with your own compassionate helping spirits.

To sum up, here are two essential characteristics of those who practice shamanism:

  • The ability to shift consciousness at will, to interact with spirits from non-ordinary reality for the purpose of helping and healing others. (This is accomplished in 90% of the world’s shamanic cultures through sonic driving like drumming and rattling.)
  • The understanding, through direct experience, that everything in the universe is interconnected, alive, and has spirit.

Contemporary shamanic practitioners are those who successfully practice and embody the above characteristics, and who have ongoing relationships with highly-evolved, compassionate spirits who provide spiritual power, knowledge, and wisdom throughout life. A practitioner of shamanism who works with these highly-evolved spirits and succeeds in helping and healing members of their tribe or society, may be recognized and named a shaman by their community.

Narrye Caldwell & Robbie Staufer
FSS Faculty

RESOURCES for further study of shamanism

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Polestar logo design by Carolyn Fee ©2010 Foundation for Shamanic Studies
FSS Polestar highlights some of the questions we are frequently asked about contemporary shamanic practice. “Polestar” is defined as “something that serves as a guiding principle.” It reflects our commitment to helping practitioners stay oriented to authentic shamanic methods and ethics, while maintaining their own independent spirituality, which comes from learning directly from the compassionate spirits. Send us your practice-related questions for consideration for Polestar. Use our CONTACT FORM, and put “Polestar” in the subject line.

FSS Polestar: Shamanism at the Inflection Point

Humanity has reached an inflection point—an unprecedented situation where one species can determine whether the Earth itself fades or flourishes.

The confluence of a pandemic, racism as graphically and inescapably laid bare by the homicide of George Floyd, vast disparity in global wealth and necessities for living, climate change and the desecration of our Earth’s ecosystems worldwide, has ripped away the illusion that we can continue on our current path.

Disillusionment, though painful and frightening, is the first step toward real change. One cannot find effective ways to help if the problem is unclear. So, in relationship with our helping spirits, let us find the strength within to open our hearts to the enormity of the suffering and allow ourselves to mourn—yet steadfastly refuse to let despair overwhelm us. And when we can see clearly, from that centered place, let us get to work healing our world. We work from a place of compassion, because we deeply desire it, knowing that as in all healing efforts, the outcome is not guaranteed. We go on because we have chosen this way forward and “we can do no other.” We strive for a restored Earth and a humanity that lives up to its promise, evolving toward an inspired future.

We are so fortunate in walking the shamanic path. We know that we are not alone in our efforts; we walk this path with countless numbers of people of knowledge, power, and kindness. And, we know that there is a vast realm of compassionate powers, the helping spirits, who guide our steps, hold our hearts, and feed our souls.

Here are a few resources to help provide context and insight on ways shamanism and shamanic methods can help us in these times.

In case you feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task facing us, and at a loss about what you can do, I would like to offer an anecdote that spoke to me. It is from an article in The Atlantic by Anne Applebaum. The entire article is notable, but in the last paragraph, Ms. Applebaum tells of a WWII member of the Polish underground, Władysław Bartoszewski, who had been a prisoner of both the Nazis and the Stalinists, and later the foreign minister in two Polish democratic governments. Toward the end of a long life, he offered this simple philosophy that had guided him though such chaotic times: “Just try to be decent.”

I think the compassionate spirits would approve.

Susan Mokelke
President

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Polestar logo design by Carolyn Fee ©2010 Foundation for Shamanic Studies
FSS Polestar highlights some of the questions we are frequently asked about contemporary shamanic practice. “Polestar” is defined as “something that serves as a guiding principle.” It reflects our commitment to helping practitioners stay oriented to authentic shamanic methods and ethics, while maintaining their own independent spirituality, which comes from learning directly from the compassionate spirits. Send us your practice-related questions for consideration for Polestar. Use our CONTACT FORM, and put “Polestar” in the subject line.

FSS Polestar: Shamanism as a Profession?

Shamanism as a Profession?
Practicing Shamanic Healing Using Core Shamanism

We find ourselves these days at a significant crossroad in the growth of shamanism in contemporary society. In the 1980s, when the Foundation’s training programs were relatively new, people got involved because they were curious, hungry to learn, and committed to reclaiming their lost spiritual heritage. There are now tens of thousands of people who have completed years of advanced training in core shamanism. Their passion for the work has inspired them to find ways to help relieve pain and suffering in the world through offering their services as shamanic practitioners.

Increasing numbers of people are asking about “shamanism as a profession,” raising practical questions like: What qualifications or training do I need to practice shamanic healing? How can I know when I am ready to start a healing practice? How do I explain to prospective clients what I do?

In response, the FSS is offering guidelines and an opportunity to engage with other practitioners in addressing these kinds of pragmatic questions, as well as how to proceed with a shamanic practice in an ethical, compassionate, and effective way. Discuss important everyday issues associated with shamanic healing and explore creating an ideal container for your practice in the FSS advanced weekend workshop, Shamanism in Practice: Ethical, Effective, and Inspired Shamanic Healing.

For more about shamanic healing as a profession, see “The Contemporary Practice of Shamanic Healing” by FSS president Susan Mokelke.

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Polestar logo design by Carolyn Fee ©2010 Foundation for Shamanic Studies
FSS Polestar highlights some of the questions we are frequently asked about contemporary shamanic practice. “Polestar” is defined as “something that serves as a guiding principle.” It reflects our commitment to helping practitioners stay oriented to authentic shamanic methods and ethics, while maintaining their own independent spirituality, which comes from learning directly from the compassionate spirits. Send us your practice-related questions for consideration for Polestar. Use our CONTACT FORM, and put “Polestar” in the subject line.

FSS Polestar: Shamanism & Shamanic Practice, Information & Support During the Coronavirus Pandemic

CLICK HERE FOR FSS ONLINE OFFERINGS & WORKSHOPS

Shamanism at the Inflection Point, message from Susan Mokelke, president

Information & Support During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In the coronavirus pandemic, humanity is facing a test unprecedented in the modern world. One of the most difficult things for us to deal with is uncertainty about the future. Fortunately, we are not alone. We have our shamanic community and we have the wisdom and power of the compassionate helping spirits. Together, we can find a path through uncertainty. We can support and care for each other and call upon our spirits for advice and healing. We can practice shamanic “selfcare” to stay strong and connected with our hearts and souls (see the entry below – Shamanic Selfcare). We can find ways to ethically assist others and our world through shamanic practices, particularly using shamanic journeying and other forms of shamanic divination to come up with inspired ordinary reality actions. More info: Shamanism for Local and Global Healing and Assistance; and Shamanism in natural or human-caused disasters.

The Foundation is providing this Polestar column as a resource during this extraordinary time. Though we may not be able to meet in person, we have available to us many powerful digital tools for face-to-face interactions, practice, and healing. In the coming weeks, the FSS plans to offer several opportunities to attend video conferences and webinars.

Please bookmark this Polestar column and check back frequently for updates and offerings. The column is divided into sections on: The Coronavirus Pandemic; In-Person Workshops & Training – Status; Online Video Conferencing & Webinars; and Shamanic Selfcare. Scroll down to the section of interest. Entries for the sections are ordered by date, with the most recent entry in the section listed first.

Remember that the greatest challenges offer the most opportunity to transform – both personally and collectively as humans – and we are not alone on this journey.

Together in spirit,
Your friends at the Foundation
info@shamanism.org

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Below are some links to resources that are updated regularly. The New York Times and the Washington Post have coronavirus sections that are free as a public service during the pandemic.

March 19, 2020

An issue most relevant at this time to any gatherings, including FSS workshops, is “social distancing.” Epidemiologists state that one of the most effective tools in an epidemic is social distancing to flatten the curve. Here is a good explanation of how flattening the curve works:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/world/corona-simulator/

In-Person Workshops & Training – Status

March 19, 2020
In order to support social distancing to slow the transmission of the virus, the FSS has postponed its in-person workshops and training programs for a time. Individual faculty members are rescheduling spring workshops for the summer or fall. Please check the workshops calendars for current offerings of the workshop or training of interest to you: https://shamanism.org/workshops/index.php.

Online Video Workshops & Offerings

April 22, 2020
In the coming weeks, the Foundation and the FSS faculty will offer opportunities to attend video meetings, including online shamanic training in the shamanic journey, as well as ways shamanism can be used to help yourself, others, and our world. At this time FSS online workshops will focus on content that offers powerful and effective methods to gain and apply wisdom from the spirits to resolve persistent problems facing humanity, our precious Earth, and its inhabitants. For links to current online offerings calendars and upcoming new online workshops, visit the FSS Online Community Meetings & Workshops page.

Shamanic Selfcare

March 19, 2020
Shamanic Practices to Support Well-Being
By Denise Paulette, FSS faculty member, Seattle, Washington

Often, when we find ourselves in a situation where we appear to have no control, a sense of fear, dread and panic can easily take hold of us. What I can offer right now in this moment is to remind you that we have beautiful compassionate helping spirits at our side and very simple but powerful tools we can use daily to access their support and healing.

The practices below, learned in the Basic Workshop, The Way of The Shaman, help us maintain our connections with our compassionate helping spirits; nourish our spiritual body, which in turn nourishes our physical and emotional body; and experience daily a renewal of joy, serenity and gratitude.

PRACTICES
If you are not familiar with shamanic practice, you can now learn online with an experienced FSS faculty member. Visit: FSS workshops and community meetings.

  • Dance and sing your soul song. 5-10 minutes is preferable, but any amount done consistently will effect positive change. Awaken and bring your soul forward so that all of your thoughts, decisions and actions for the day come from a place of true connection.
  • Dance your power animal. A light merge with your power animal not only strengthens your connection to your spirit animal, it also brings you healing and protection.
  • Connect to nature. Long or short, walks in nature will support your feelings of well-being. Add to that the shamanic practice of connecting to all that is: saying hello and introducing yourself to the earth forms and lifeforms you see: the clouds, the trees, rocks, all creatures and vegetation. Sitting with and hugging trees is a powerful way to release worries and fear and to take in strength, healing and wisdom. The sun is shining—soak it up. Ask it for calm and patience. And be sure to thank all the earth forms for all they offer us freely every day.
  • Take a shamanic journey of your own choosing, either for divination or healing. Ask for what you need. One of my favorites is to go to one of my most love-filled places in non-ordinary reality and receive love and support from the helping spirits.
  • Drum and rattle daily. The simple beautiful beat of the drum or rattle provides an amazing amount of healing and return to balance.

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Polestar logo design by Carolyn Fee ©2010 Foundation for Shamanic Studies
FSS Polestar highlights some of the questions we are frequently asked about contemporary shamanic practice. “Polestar” is defined as “something that serves as a guiding principle.” It reflects our commitment to helping practitioners stay oriented to authentic shamanic methods and ethics, while maintaining their own independent spirituality, which comes from learning directly from the compassionate spirits. Send us your practice-related questions for consideration for Polestar. Use our CONTACT FORM, and put “Polestar” in the subject line.

FSS Polestar: Shamanism for Local and Global Healing and Assistance

Faced with catastrophes of an epic scale — such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and social injustice — how can I ethically bring the power of the compassionate spirits to help?

Faced with catastrophes of epic scale, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, massive fires in Siberia, California, and Australia, social injustice and inequality, and environmental degradation and species extinction, many people are seeking ways to help shamanically. Tragically, there is no shortage of major issues of planetary concern.

While the caring and compassion that motivates us to try to help is a beautiful thing, it may also result in unwise and harmful action for those unaware of the ethical issues associated with the healing uses of shamanic power.

We thought it might be helpful to remind ourselves of the importance and necessity for ethics and permission in the practice of shamanism. Being clear about permission issues when involving our helping spirits in healing activities is paramount, and can be especially complex when working on a large scale. One of Michael Harner’s greatest teachings was this ethical understanding, related to permission on every scale from the individual to the global — without which, no matter how sincere our hearts, we are still practicing sorcery.

With this in mind, we offer the following resources to help you in taking effective and ethical action to relieve pain and suffering in these dire times.

This column from FSS Polestar provides guidance on the ethical issues involved:
https://shamanism.org/news/fss-polestar-shamanism-in-natural-or-human-caused-disasters/

Guidelines regarding permission issues when doing shamanic healing, no matter the scale of the situation: https://shamanism.org/articles/ethics.html

Link to article from the FSS journal, Shamanism Annual, with a step-by-step overview of a process for applying shamanism to local and global issues: https://shamanism.org/news/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Mokelke-Divination-ProblemSolving-p29-31.pdf

Do you want to meet with others to learn and practice this process? Join us for the new advanced weekend workshop, Shamanism for Inspired Local and Global Change (in-person): https://shamanism.org/workshops/calendar.php?Wkshp_ID=38. NOW online: Shamanism for Inspired Local and Global Change (online): https://shamanism.org/workshops/calendar.php?Wkshp_ID=44.

In gratitude for your compassion for our world,
The FSS Staff
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Polestar logo design by Carolyn Fee ©2010 Foundation for Shamanic Studies
FSS Polestar highlights some of the questions we are frequently asked about contemporary shamanic practice. “Polestar” is defined as “something that serves as a guiding principle.” It reflects our commitment to helping practitioners stay oriented to authentic shamanic methods and ethics, while maintaining their own independent spirituality, which comes from learning directly from the compassionate spirits. Send us your practice-related questions for consideration for Polestar. Use our CONTACT FORM, and put “Polestar” in the subject line.

FSS Polestar: Visual and Non-Visual Shamanic Journeys

I’m concerned because my journeys are not very visual. Other people report a lot of vivid details from their journeys, almost as if they’re watching a movie. My journeys aren’t like that at all. I often just get vague, disconnected images. Am I doing something wrong?

Not everyone receives strong visual imagery when journeying, and “seeing” is not necessarily a more powerful or better way to journey. For some people, information comes to them more through other senses such as hearing, smell, emotions, and physical sensations such as changes in temperature. Also, the spirits can communicate to you in a variety of non-visual ways. You might, for instance, hear your spirit’s voice or get a feeling in your body when they are near. And sometimes they convey information directly to the heart, which may feel like an intuitive certainty about the issue of concern. Such journeyers often say: “I just knew in my heart.”

If you are not visual in your journeys, the main thing is to be very clear about when you are in the Upper or Lower World, versus the Middle World. If you don’t “see” the zones/barriers that you must pass through to reach these worlds in non-ordinary reality, you must still have certainty about where you are through whatever senses work well for you. If you are unclear about this, it is sometimes helpful to use the simultaneous narration method taught in the Harner Shamanic Counseling workshop.

As one becomes more practiced at interpreting the spirits’ messages, the ways the spirits communicate often shift. And so, a person who had unusually vivid journeys at the beginning may find the message is transmitted in more subtle ways, with less detail, but also with greater specificity and certainty about the answer. Alternatively, those who may have had difficulty perceiving the spirits’ communications at first, may experience visual and other senses sharpening and expanding, with clear messages coming through.

Ultimately, the spirits desire to help us and want to work with those who are assisting others and our world. Results are what matter in shamanism. Thus, if you are getting useful information and are able to work effectively with the helping spirits to help others, there is no need to be concerned about vividness or the manner in which the information is communicated.

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Polestar logo design by Carolyn Fee ©2010 Foundation for Shamanic Studies
FSS Polestar highlights some of the questions we are frequently asked about contemporary shamanic practice. “Polestar” is defined as “something that serves as a guiding principle.” It reflects our commitment to helping practitioners stay oriented to authentic shamanic methods and ethics, while maintaining their own independent spirituality, which comes from learning directly from the compassionate spirits. Send us your practice-related questions for consideration for Polestar. Use our CONTACT FORM, and put “Polestar” in the subject line.