We live in a time when authentic shamanic work is deeply needed. But “authenticity” has been so grossly overused, it doesn’t mean much anymore. You do not search for authenticity. Rather, your life is meant to be an expression of your authentic self. The first work then is to awaken your relationship with your authentic self. After that awakening, the work is about cultivating that relationship and expressing your authenticity.
Shamanic skills can be effective and powerful. But what happens when you engage in a path of shamanic training without engaging your authentic self first? What happens when our shamanic work is being directed by an unhealthy ego, a frightened wounded child, or an aspect of one’s own shadow? An inauthentic person can’t create authenticity no matter how well intended. Intention isn’t everything. Intention will not make up for a lack of authenticity.
Initiation into Authenticity
Authenticity requires an intimacy with self. That intimacy is arrived at through the rigors, disciplines and creativity of shamanic training. That’s what training is for. And so the situation we find ourselves in, where authenticity has been debased to mere marketing language, leaves anyone free to claim authenticity.
This does not happen in traditional or indigenous shamanic cultures. The reason: these original cultures initiated their teenage children into adulthood as a matter of course. It was part of the culture’s responsibility to help the young step into their own authenticity as adults.
In these original cultures, adulthood would be in a sense synonymous with an expression of your authentic self. That expression of adult self carries with it an ability to answer life’s biggest questions: “Who am I? Why am I here?” In original cultures, the purpose of shamanic training is NOT to help you find your authentic self. That is the purpose of the formalized initiation into adulthood. In indigenous cultures, shamanic training would happen AFTER that awakening.
American culture has in many ways given up on the responsibilities of initiating its young into adulthood and a sense of their authentic self. Do you have a deep, intimate relationship with your authentic self? Shamanic training does not automatically inject authenticity into you.
I see a lack of deep intimate relationship with our authentic selves in many of the inauthentic offerings in our mixed and diverse world of contemporary shamanism. I am thinking of the “Become a Shaman in 18 Weeks” kind of trainings. “Starter witch-kits” from cosmetic companies. And training programs that promise you will be certified as a shaman when you complete a certain course. The list goes on and on.
Authenticity is Not a Cure-all
At the heart of this ongoing relationship with inauthenticity is the desire to step over the discomfort and sacrifice required to maintain an authentic relationship with yourself.
Living authentically is not comfortable. One great misunderstanding is the belief that once I find my authentic self, everything will be slick as spit. My heart will always be singing in all that I do and I will manifest everything that I ever wanted.
Actually living the life of your authentic self is a constant challenge. It always has been, and it is even more so in our time. It isn’t comfortable for a contemporary American person to repair and maintain an intimate relationship with their own authentic self. It isn’t easy or formulaic in a culture that has failed its collective responsibility to initiate its young people.
One has to be blind or willfully turning away to not see the difference in the quality of engagement with spirit when we observe an indigenous shamanic practitioner at work relative to a typical “I just took a workshop” practitioner. Our inauthenticity is something we need to pay attention to.
For generations, we’ve had all the same issues we have now: Dysfunctional families teaching dysfunctional life skills. Wounds and collective trauma. Binary gender expectations leaving people without the freedom to explore their authenticity. For generations we’ve had a serious cultural belief that the only sane states of consciousness are waking, sleeping and dreaming and that everything else was a state of mental illness. And for many the religion they were raised in instills deeply fear-based self-doubt for even considering a step of self-expression outside the prescribed boundaries.
The Pressures of Technology
Now we have the culturally sanctioned, anxiety driven, peer pressure of social media distracting us even further in addition to all of those issues that were already distracting us from our own authenticity. Technology CAN be our friend—it can do amazing things for us. But what is popular is rarely authentic. Succumbing to the pressure for “likes” and “trending” drives us away from authenticity and into a created identity or false self.
Engaging on social media often obliterates privacy and healthy boundaries, which are an essential foundation for relating to one’s authentic self. Social media platforms generate an ongoing illusion of what engaging and responding to each other really means. It’s now clicking and posting. The hours of distraction inherent in social media, moves us away from activities that cultivate a deep, intimate relationship with our authentic self.
It’s common today to begin your day and end your day by interacting with an app on your smart phone. This used to be the function of prayer—conversation with the invisible world that begins and ends your day by asking for goodness to come to you and your loved ones and to the world. So if we care about our authenticity, we need to be very careful and discerning about how we are engaging with technology and how it replaces intimacy with the self, with Spirit, and with others.
What is authentic is rarely popular. Making something popular often means watering it down so more people will love it. I have watched powerful Qi Gong masters lose the depth and breadth of their teaching by trying to create a form so simple that everyone will be willing to do it. We see this effect everywhere in different practices. If we are not clear in ourselves we end up urged into convulsions of deception and falseness by the need to trend, to get “likes and hits.”
Authenticity does not come from the exterior forms. It comes from a willingness to practice difficult things that are not popular. Shamanism has always been this way. Do not allow yourself to be driven by your fear, greed, or old, unattended need for specialness, into a relationship with self that marketers want you in, but is simply not true.
Living an authentic life with robust connection to your authentic self requires constant cultivation—through skills like shamanic journeying, clearing the emotional body, daily energy body hygiene, and truly living a shamanic life of integrity with the non-human world. This is a life of consistent engagement.
Death and New Birth
Authenticity requires that we cultivate a right relationship with Death. We must transform the many forces within us that generate a false identity. Authenticity requires that we no longer grasp and hold on. We must learn to breathe into the truth of things and allow the old self to die, no matter how attractive or comfortable it seems. Authenticity is constant, deep, internal growth.
We could ask, “Who in me needs to die so that I can live into a deep and intimate relationship with my authentic self?”
The next thing that authenticity requires is that we give birth to two different kinds of things. The first are the aspects of self we are in denial of, things we truly don’t value, but live in us nonetheless. These are things like our unconscious desire for power, rank, and privilege. We need to give them birth to truly bring them out of hiding. In the light of that honesty, we can see how we became this way and how we must change to restore the alignment with the authentic self.
We also need to give birth to things we are afraid of that we want to express in the world, like our true, non-definable sexuality, our true passions that lie outside of the bounds of what is considered reasonable, or a love so fierce many don’t recognize it for what it is.
We could ask, “Who in me needs to be born so that I can live into a deep and intimate relationship with my authentic self?”
Real Teachers and Real Faith
You cannot do all of this by yourself. You will need to ask for help. We need teachers—human teachers, not just books or the internet—we need friends and community. Teachers can present ideas and skills you’ve never thought of. Friends and community give us feedback – especially when we go off the rails. And here is the paradox: No one can do the work for you. You need to ask for help and you need to do your own work. These are both true, simultaneously.
To live authentically you need faith. Faith gives us the ability to be in that space between what was and what has not yet come to be. Faith allows the confidence that we can grow and change into something new, not just a new version of what we used to be, but something truly new. Faith is not something that is attached to religion. It exists as an essence energy, in and of itself. The question we need to ask is not what do we have faith in, but do we even have the capacity for faith.
We could ask, “Is my capacity for faith great enough to come into right relationship with my authentic self and to do what I have come here to do?”
Faith, like all the other important sacred things, is something that is cultivated through attention to it. If we want to live authentically, we must have faith in something larger than ourselves. We need faith in our ability to care intensely about authenticity while not indulging an unhealthy ego. We need faith to stay out of the righteousness that blinds us to our rank, privilege, and power. And we need faith to not become righteous about our woundedness and victimization.
The “Authentic Shamanism” Argument
There is an old argument about the authenticity of contemporary shamanism itself. On one side of the argument is the Foundation for Shamanic Studies which put forward journeying as a technique or a technology people can engage in without necessarily following any specific cultural tradition. On the other side of this argument are indigenous people and those who studied indigenous traditions who say that there is no shamanism without the culture it comes from.
There is merit to both sides of this argument. The problem is that the argument has stayed an argument. It never evolved into a new understanding. It lacks the dimension a discussion of authenticity would bring to it.
Journeying works. It works with many different drivers, whether it is a plant hallucinogen or four days of dancing or 30 minutes of drumming. Humans are designed to enter altered states. We don’t have to be part of a specific culture for it to work. It works because it is an authentic human activity.
Journeying, by itself, outside a specific culture, is not appropriation because the act of journeying is so widely shared by cultures around the world that you can’t say any one culture owns it. It would be like saying that people with a tradition of working with the North Star can claim that the North Star belongs to them. The North Star belongs to all life on earth.
However, the specific way a culture journeys with the precise form they use is certainly owned by the culture. For someone to journey in that way and call it their own would be appropriation.
What the old argument boils down to is this: “Because you have no viable shamanic culture as Caucasian people, you are frauds. You are ‘plastic shamans.'” Obviously that is hard for white-presenting people to stomach. People who feel distant from their own shamanic roots and have finally found a sense of self, a sense of relationship with spirit by learning to journey, are not frauds because of the color of their skin.
Building a New Authentic Shamanism
Whether or not we are frauds depends on the authenticity of our relationship with spirit. Without a coherent shamanic culture, we are basically starting over again to learn how to connect with spirit and to ask all the questions and do all the work needed to create a new, authentic shamanic culture. And we can’t take a short cut by appropriating the ways of others. We have to do the work, make the mistakes, feel foolish and try again.
There is validity to the argument that shamanism is not a set of techniques, but it exists within the context of a culture. We can’t dumb the shamanism down so it is popular for everyone; it won’t be shamanism anymore. We can’t continue to do only the parts we can monetize because then we won’t build the culture. If we continue to practice without looking at the true authenticity of our own shamanic work, the doors to a new future will not open. And what our world, both human and non-human, needs right now is a new, authentic shamanic culture.
To build an authentic shamanic culture out of our current contemporary lives will seem insane every step of the way, except to your authentic self. The authenticity of your practice begins with the authenticity within yourself. First and foremost authenticity requires an active working relationship with spirit—living it every day. Authenticity is cultivated, through practice, pain, truth-telling, error, humility, revision, courage, new openness, and discipline. We cannot monetize any of this. There’s no return on this investment, except the authentic life you create.