Light Of The Shaman

by Aug 10, 2023

The sustaining tradition of the indigenous heart is being remembered. Our survival as a species may depend upon it. Step forward you, the wild, natural mystic…

Buddhism, Reiki, Christianity, Drumming Circles, Islamism, Yoga, Herbalism, Trance Dance, Mindfulness, virtually all major spiritual and healing traditions and practices share the same root in humankind, the way of the shaman. It is the original and continuous platform of accessing spiritual awareness and it is sown into the nature of us human beings as our birthright. Some anthropologists say 30,000, others 50,000 years ago the first evidence can be traced to our Ancestors awakening to the sacredness of life. Yet, in recent years a Neanderthal grave excavated in Germany found a skeleton with the remains of rose petals among the bones. Carbon dating the petals revealed them to be 100,000 years old. The life and soul of a human clearly worshiped as sacred by the burial ritual.  From ancient findings such as this, we can trace evolving awareness, celebration and honouring of the sacred lifeforces of animals, plants, rivers, mountains, the sun, moon, stars, as well as our own species. Through a primal engagement with the natural world, the turning of the seasons, cycles of birth and death, in the heart of the mystery of life on Earth, those who went before us awoke to find in that place of engagement, beauty, magic, wisdom, sacred energy and more mystery. The one who chose or was chosen by the community to venture into that mystery more than anyone else, was the shaman. Consequently, he/she/they returned to the community with the experience of adventures into spirit, bringing back visions, new frames for understanding our mortal and immortal human condition, wisdom and the inside power to intervene and harmonize energy systems of many diverse fields, from the weather to a sick child.

Having crammed 100,000 years of tradition into less than 300 words, I can only smile at how broad the brushstrokes. I love talking about shamanism. It’s my life, I teach it, I see clients almost every week who come to me to heal in the arms of this great tradition. I love being in ceremony, being asked on occasion to be a ritualist. I love the research, academic and fieldwork. But I’m often uneasy with the word ‘shamanism’ and sometimes shy on the word ‘shaman’ itself. Why? Because it is another ‘ism’ and it gets placed in the minds of listeners and readers along with the many other ‘isms’ in our vernacular when we speak of matters spiritual. And that can be a disservice to the tradition and the lineages of mystic-healers we attempt to refer to, when we use the word ‘shamanism’. It is a disservice if we place it alongside other traditions, because in truth, it underpins them. The root of all the ‘isms’ is ‘shamanism’, (I wish I didn’t have to say it that way, because in no way am I campaigning for a hierarchical perception, more referring to the trunk of the tree and then, the roots beneath, less visible). As for the word ‘shaman’, it carries much stigma, judgement and misunderstanding for some people, which is unfortunate. In my native language Gaeilge (Irish-Gaelic), there is no word for ‘shaman’. More on that later.

Collapsing pillars of institutions, financial, civic, religious and political. Mounting pollution, worldwide inequities in the resources for dignified, sustainable life, chaos of climate change. The combination of all these is thankfully, but not painlessly getting our attention. Many are learning the cost of giving our power away to experts in the banking, political and religious fields. Many are realizing too that several codes of conduct embraced by western, industrialized culture are backfiring on a critical level. So, what to do? Beyond the devastation of greed, broken trust and witnessing abuse of natural resources and wealth, an ancient memory is being stoked within many who live in the west or its mindset. From colonialism, industrial revolution to pogroms, the vibrancy of living from an indigenous consciousness was conditioned out of many of us. However that tide seems to be turning, noticeably so in this generation.  Many people are reclaiming empowerment, direct revelation with spiritual energy and a more authentic sense of humanity, by restoring their connection to the natural world, on literal and mystical levels. By awakening the shaman within ourselves, we seem to be finding a path of remembering a more original, organic way of being. One that frees us from limiting conditioning and grounds us with positivity and strength in the midst of upheaval and rapid change.


In Ireland, this remembering in the hearts of people is almost explosive, evidence that we are able to acknowledge a wild, indigenous nature not far beneath the surface of ourselves. The Pre-Celtic and Celtic shamanic lineage of this land has been stored in the cells of our bodies as much as in the stones of the earth, irrespective of what we’ve been told or even told ourselves, about that inheritance and irrespective of the regard we’ve held for the stones of the Earth. The shamanic path will always be the default path of divine connection for human beings because it does not and cannot belong to anyone, not to any age nor culture. In the circular arteries that conjoin humankind and Nature, flows divine energy, the very currency of spirit. It is a tradition that is honoured, renewed and developed by every generation that remembers, at once ancient while finding contemporary expression in exciting traditional and new ways. It is the original transpersonal psycho-spiritual path, understanding that our innermost, personal healing is indivisible from us healing our relationship with the Earth and all her children. The shaman knows that when we turn up for the Earth, we turn up for ourselves. What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves.

“OK, John, so what can we do to reawaken this indigenous self? How can we know that connection to our authentic selves and the world around us?” I often recall being asked this big question by Billie Dean and Andrew Einspruch, producers of the documentary 2012: This Sacred Earth, in which my wife Dr. Karen Ward was also a contributor. I began by saying that it is important to realize that we are by nature, equipped and primed for the awakening. We don’t have to reach a place of qualification before we step on the path. Our Irish tradition asks us to open our senses, more and more to natural life around us, whether in your window box or the mountain you walk on a Sunday. Be fearless in developing an intimacy with the water of the rivers, the songs of birds, the freshness the of air in Spring. All animals including humans are born wild. We enter this world with no training or taming and we need to free that innate wild man and woman within each of us, (this wildness is not to be confused with savagery). So, go a little wild! Choose to walk the beach barefoot and you will experience the sand and water impossible while in your boots. Whistle back to the birds in your garden. Smell the water of the river where you fish, it’s how the salmon navigates. Taste a poached young oak leaf as part of dinner. Above all, allow yourself to listen with all of your senses and you will be spoken to, in surprising and comforting ways. The Ancestors of this land revered the Amhrán Mór – the Great Song, (pronounced “on-ow-rawn-more”). It is, they said, the song that begat creation and is the ever-present sound of creation making itself again and again. It is to be heard in the wilderness, where we too can enter the song.

When we look at many of the avatars that became the iconic archetypes of contemporary religions, we see that they seemed to know this. There is not so much evidence that Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed received their enlightenment in temples, churches or mosques. It is in the wild, natural world of the desert or meditating under the tree that provided the environment for their spiritual breakthroughs. A wonderful shamanic friend of mine, a catholic nun, Sister Theresa (non-habit wearing btw), I caught closing her eyes with a wee shake of her head, as we passed a church undergoing repairs on one of our walks. “C’mon, Theresa, you can’t be doing that, you’re a nun,” I scolded her. She turned to me and said, “Ah, John, why build on pieces of the Earth and call them houses of God, when the entire Earth is the house of God? We build to separate it and look what happens when we do?” Amen, Sister.

When Karen and I founded our shamanic training school, it was named for us by our tradition, Slí An Chroí, (pronounced “shlee-on-kree”) which is Gaeilge (Irish-Gaelic) for ‘Pathway Of The Heart’. The Irish tradition of indigenous spirituality is one that hugely reveres the sensuous as the primary means of connection and perception. In truth, the Pre-Celtic Ancestors understood no difference between our hearts and our souls, quite a radical, even contentious concept for many in this day and age. To experience love and compassion is a spiritual experience, a truism that shifts the doorway of metaphysical connection down into our heart centre and not solely through the theological and doctrinal concerns of the mind. The pathway of the heart prompts us to open courageously to know what is ‘super’ in the natural world, making the super-natural real and universal. When we know as our birthright the interconnecting, luminous energy matrix that hardwires our natural world, the Otherworld reveals itself.

The saying “the person who knows infinity cannot be conquered” speaks of how real the Otherworld is in comparison to the one of linear time, constant transitions and mortality. We say the super-natural is understood as “that which knowledge cannot eat,” it is experienced through the courage to be sensuous and mystical in the governance of an open heart and Nature communion. In Ireland, we have foundation cycles of mythology held in folk memory for centuries, giving us maps of the ordinary physical world overlapping the Otherworld. These ancient stories are an Ancestral psychic comfort blanket full of golden keys to the combined sweetness of place and identity, physical and metaphysical, as a lived experience. The stories hold no dogma nor ask for faith, they simply, poetically express a truth that the landscape, seen and unseen, has soul. And we are of that.

Why value the metaphysical experience of the supernatural when all our attention is demanded by challenges, chaos and changes in the physical environment? Because we can, it is native to our humanity. It brings us to the well from where we draw wise energy to meet those sometimes, overwhelming challenges. Our metaphysical healing voyages in the Otherworld resource the practical effort and problem solving, here and now. In Ireland, this is ultimately a hard question to answer because to separate the physical from the metaphysical is possible, but only temporarily so. The visible entwinement of both worlds and the infinite truth of that entwinement, collapses our intellectual gymnastics to separate. We can refer to the dimensions of life as residing in the ordinary world (all that is literal, physical, psychological, emotional, mortal) or in the Otherworld, (what is mythic, symbolic and energetic, mysterious, magical, immortal). But it’s not a competition, never either or. Embedded in the Irish psyche is that healing is ultimately sourced in the Otherworld, integrated in the physical world, but we need to move beyond the veils of the ordinary first and then return. The Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) word for ‘healing’ is leigheas (pronounced “lie-iss”). It is also our word for ‘retrieval’. Was Einstein in his own way echoing this when saying, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”?

Nature is the way and the destination, pure and simple. Opening and deepening sensitivity to our natural world, we can recover the primal, native experience that we are not above Nature nor even a participant with it, but that we are of Nature. The oneness of this remembering is utterly rich in joy, belonging, enchantment, homecoming and rapture. It brings with it inescapable responsibility and accountability. It is not for the ungrounded nor faint-hearted, a sincerely robust culture of self-awareness and self-care must be in place to live in the world with that consciousness, concurrent with the impact our species has on the planet. Yet clearly there is now and always have been, ones among us for whom there is no other journey. We might see them as ‘the shamanic people’, living neither above nor below any others, but simply identifiable by the light of their experience of oneness. Even in dark days, that light is unquenchable, made of many energies it is, a deep ecstasy being one of them. In the conversations we have here in Ireland about why there is no word in our first language for ‘shaman’, the principle that it is not necessary or even forbidden, is sometimes heard. For when the ‘shaman’ enters the room, everyone feels their presence without need for title, introduction or persuasion. Perhaps we keep a word missing from our language to keep alive the primacy of the way of the heart.

About the author

John Cantwell/Seán de Cantúail

John Cantwell/Seán de Cantúail

Seán de Cantúail (John Cantwell) and Cairenn Nic An Bhard (Dr. Karen Ward) are husband and wife and co-directors of Slí An Chroí (Pathway Of The Heart) in Ireland. In many and various ways, they share the Pre-Celtic and Celtic healing heritage of their native shamanic tradition. Every Samhain (early November) they open the 1 year apprenticeship in the Irish lineage known as The Medicine Spiral. They also offer a self-paced Introduction beforehand. More information, /
Seán de Cantúail (John Cantwell) and Cairenn Nic An Bhard (Dr. Karen Ward) are husband and wife and co-directors of Slí An Chroí (Pathway Of The Heart) in Ireland. In many and various ways, they share the Pre-Celtic and Celtic healing heritage of their native shamanic tradition. Every Samhain (early November) they open the 1 year apprenticeship in the Irish lineage known as The Medicine Spiral. They also offer a self-paced Introduction beforehand. More information, /
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  1. Shala Hill

    Beautifully written.

  2. Ivan Gray

    Hi John, loved the article and that you kick off with human kind’s prehistory and evidence of ceremonial practices. The Rainbow Bar Community Research Project is an archaeological project trying to engage the local community in environmental action by building their connection with the land through archaeology and the story of Mesolithic people in the Solent Area (Southern England between Portsmouth and Southampton).

    This includes working with local schools, and as a classroom exercise we asked them what they thought the symbols on the Star Carr pendant might represent. We have also asked a fellow Shaman in the society what they think.

    What do you make of them, and do you fancy an exercise in engaging members to offer their interpretation ? The context would be the importance of Star Carr as the first early Mesolithic archaeological site offering hard evidence of ritual.

    If you can be tempted, we could work up together what would be a consultation with the SSP as a community of practice inviting them to contribute to an archaeological study.

  3. Jennifer Blalock

    Thank you for sharing this article. It is profound. I will revisit it along the way.

  4. Forrest itche iichiile Hudson

    John, I appreciate the breadth and depth of your writing.

    I think many would agree that “language” , written/spoken/signed, is inherently rife with ambiguities. Unless the participants mutually agree upon definitions, one is simply “whistling into the wind”…ain’t no one listening. You bring attention to the word(s) shaman and it’s “ism”. I’ve listened to heated debates on various opinions as to what constitutes Shamanism and what it is not. It’s a label…call it Homer Simpsomism if one chooses…does that alter one’s experience (?)…probably not.

    However, I do find it extremely frustrating and futile to engage in a meaningful discussion around the topic of spirituality/Shamanism when the participants possess varying definitions of subject matter words and then use them interchangeably. UGH!

    Thankfully, the essence of Shamanism is “hardwired” into our being-ness and can be experientially engaged rather than having to solely rely on a certain vernacular for the experience.

    Since we live in a participatory Universe it seems to me that the more this “ism” is explored experimentally by the collective the less need for linguistic descriptions. HA!

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