The Society for Shamanic Practice asked a few “Shamanic Elders”—those who have walked the path for some time—to share their thoughts on things they wished they had learned earlier on the path. In no particular order, here is some “advice from elders.”
Laurie Schmidt: Shamanism a life-long calling.
Here are some things about shamanism that I wish I had been more aware of at the start:
- Shamanism is a calling. It’s not a part-time job, it’s a way of life.
- Shamanism is a relationship with beings who will frighten you, nourish you, frustrate you, love you, challenge you, humble you, call you out on your shit and bring you to places of unexpected awe and wonder.
- Shamanism is lifelong exploration and soul stretching, or as T. S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”
Karl Schlotterbeck: Spirit and soul relationships.
After 32 years of learning and teaching, there are three things I wish I’d fully realized from the beginning.
- First is the need to recognize that our work is based not on power or tools, but on the quality of our relationships with our spirit allies and with the land from which we draw life.
- Second, the importance of our shamanic work is not so much in its potential to serve my desires to offer healing or wisdom (certainly worthy things), but in a collaborative effort to bring balance to a world that has lost touch with soul and land, and is afflicted with cultures of exploitation instead of honorable partnership.
- Third, we need to encourage direct encounters with ancestral spirits of the land on which we live – in addition to whatever spirit-images we import from other lands. We may thus respectfully bridge cultures and continents, time and eternity.
Gary Lindorff: Learn and heal in nature.
When I first explored shamanism over 20 years ago, I was almost exclusively outside in nature and it occurs to me that my shamanism is founded on that immersion in natural places of presence and power. Nature is the great teacher and healer. But unlike in times past, we are losing nature at an accelerating rate, regionally and globally, so the whole of my advice is, let your shamanism be twofold: Learn and heal in / with nature and then use your skills to the best of your ability to heal nature. Even use your shamanism, in warrior-mode, to defend nature. Without nature there is no shamanism.
Kerri Hummingbird: Make each day a ceremony.
In ceremony, we open the directions at the beginning and set the container to invite the Great Spirit to guide our hearts, minds and actions; we pray to the plants to teach us something useful; and then we pay very close attention to what unfolds. We can live each day as a ceremony. We can start the day by opening sacred space and inviting the Four Directions, the allies, the ancestors, and our guides to help us. We don’t need a physical dose of medicine to learn from the plant teachers. We can simply make the invitation, and then notice each moment what unfolds. For example, interruptions might be redirections. Occasionally I miss the morning prayers and witness that my day starts to go sideways, which always prompts me to go outside and make that invitation.
Tom Cowan: Shamanism a way to the Divine.
I’ve always believed in God, although my idea of what or who God is has changed from time to time. But the feeling of “being in the presence of God” is one that has abided with me over the years. What I didn’t realize when I first began to practice shamanism is how it would support my beliefs and be a factor in both changing and deepening my beliefs about God. There are numerous ways this has happened, but to be brief, it was the presence of spirit or consciousness in all things that deepened my idea of God as being the Life Force, the Consciousness, the Mystery at the heart of all things. When I began practicing shamanism no one said to me something like “Shamanism is going to change your beliefs about God.” But it has, it did, and that has been one of its greatest gifts to me.
Steven Farmer: The presence of the ancestors.
My first experience with shamanism was over 25 years ago. I was and still am a psychotherapist yet when I took the initial course that introduced me to shamanism, I was on fire. I slowly transitioned to incorporating shamanic healing as an aspect of my practice that quickly became central for many years. Here was something that spoke to my soul and my deepest longing. I do wish I had incorporated the ancestors from the beginning as it’s only been the past few years that they have made their presence felt. I also wish I had found a mentor or coach early on that I could work with one-to-one in addition to the various trainings that I took part in. Given that though, there are no regrets, as I know in my heart of hearts that Spirit has been directing the show all along!
Jaime Meyer: The need for a human teacher.
Of course, things are always as they should be, and Spirit guides you how it guides you, and I don’t have any regrets about how I’ve walked my shamanic path for 30+ years. But, now, as an older walker, I see something clearly that I didn’t earlier in life: the value of having a long-term relationship with a human teacher and mentor. I began my shamanic studies by reading voraciously, taking a rare one-off weekend workshop and spending eight years doing shamanic drum journeys nearly every day in my little three-room apartment in the inner city. This was certainly a profound form of initiation into the mysteries – my own version of the forty days in the desert or the walkabout. But it may also have been a way of hiding from life by swimming in the mystical. There is no doubt that this consistent, dedicated practice built a solid relationship with my helping spirits, and they accomplished a vast amount of healing on me and my ancestors. (I didn’t understand the ancestral work that was being done until many years later.) But in those years, I was deeply worried about falling into fantasy and ego, getting drawn in by charlatans, crazies or woo-woos, and, worse: becoming one. I saw myself as very, very poor and spending money on a teacher was out of the question. I loved the phrase, “the Spirits are your real teachers” because it freed me to remain alone in my little wild otherworld of wonder. However, looking back – and I am serious when I say I have no regrets – I see much of my daily life as wrapped in fear and arrogance. I wonder what would have happened, how would my path may have been different (deeper, more powerful?) if I had allowed myself to connect with a human teacher in a long- term mentoring relationship, as I have in recent years.
Nita Renfrew: Shamanism a local practice.
When I was called by the spirits, I began my learning, attending many Western-tailored workshops in shamanic practice. I thought I would be able to call myself a shaman. But fortunately that never felt right. In order to be called a shaman, traditionally, you need to have a strong community following, and be called a shaman by your community. You do not decide to call yourself a shaman, no matter how many workshops and such you have attended! I describe what I do as shamanic practice; even today, after many years, I never call myself a shaman.
There are negative as well as positive spirits, and the positive ones do like humility.
I slowly realized, with the help of the spirit guides who came to me, that true shamanic practice mainly entails actively cultivating a strong connection with the land you live on, and with the other-than-human beings in Nature themselves, as well as the land’s spirits.
Having said that, once you establish a relationship with the land you inhabit and its beings and spirits (this takes a lot of time), wondrous things will begin to happen for you, as they did for me, and continue to do so.
Gretchen Crilly McKay: The need for spiritual cleansing.
As an elder shamanic practitioner, I wish my early mentors had provided more information and practices about spiritual cleansing, both personal and for spaces. Simply using burning sage is not enough and it took many years of experiential learning to recognize how important this practice is and how to clear myself and spaces completely. In my classes I include the use of powerful medicinal herbs for clearing a space, for steaming and bathing as well as practices for setting clear boundaries and standing in one’s sovereignty. Spiritual hygiene is an essential and often overlooked component of any healer’s practice.
Valerie Boyar: Tame the ego.
I was taught so much in the early days by two wonderful and humble teachers. There is very little that I wish was different. But there are two perspectives that I may have found helpful in those early days.
I was warned about letting my ego take credit for the outcome of my work…and some of it was spectacular! But my teachers were right. I was very impressed with myself and what spirit could do.
So there are two insights about traveling in the spirit world I would have welcomed in the early days: first, strategies to soothe my ego into stepping out of the picture….and strengthen my relationship with my spirit guides; second, encouragement to explore increasingly greater areas of the spirit world. I have found that the more places I visit, with my power animal, the more expansive my learning and my ability to help others