What is shamanism? Traditionally the term has been applied to a wide range of activities — mediumship, herbalism, healing, performance, magical practices and the casting of 'spells', prophecy, shapeshifting, storytelling, and what have you. Yet another way of understanding shamanism is to consider it from the perspective of a particular skill or sensitivity that allows the practitioner to transcend certain consensual ways of viewing and experiencing the world and to develop skills that serve the wider community and that complement their own outlook and beliefs about the world. In other words, shamans are often individuals who are able to give expression to those outlooks and beliefs and to use them to accomplish various types of healing and intermediation.
In my own experience shamanism is not in any way an "archaic relic" but may still exist today in modern contexts, e.g. in the art world and particularly the performing arts, in dance and many other areas where creativity and sensitivity to "what is going on in the background" allow people to develop skills to an exceptional degree. I have no doubt that many well-know people like Albert Einstein, Buster Keaton and so on possessed and used these skills in equal measure to our ancestors. As author Roger Walsh suggests in The Spirit of Shamanism, many people whom we ordinarily dismiss for their antics or genius or strange behaviour would in former times have assumed the office of shaman or healer. As it is, their sills are often not recognised even by themselves.
In practical terms it may be easiest to describe shamanism in terms of what the shaman (male of female) actually accomplishes, their methods and the worldviews of the cultures and societies to which they belong. This is an important argument because it allows us to consider the extent to which the 'shamanic gift' is validated in terms of its ability to sense and provide meaning and solutions for contemporary problems. And what are the contemporary problems of individuals and society? These are perhaps less concerns about the failure of crops or 'magical' powers than about meaning and purpose. In other words, as modern societies have to some extent provided the most basic security (the lowest rung on Maslow's "hierarchy of needs") questions about meaning and purpose have in a sense become more urgent, particularly as we face seemingly insurmountable crises that may in some way reflect our values and beliefs about the world. The term "healing" thus acquires a radical new meaning and purpose, consistent with criticism and questions about our values and beliefs as well as with our growing awareness that SOMETHING RADICALLY HAS TO CHANGE!
We might argue that activities like healing and restoring some semblance of harmony require both sensitivity and some knowledge of both the environment —plants, insects, animals, weather, seasons and natural objects like landscapes, rivers, fire and water — as well as a keen awareness of human behaviour, and particularly those aspects of human behaviour that most of us are poorly aware of. A 'powerful' shaman is someone who is, in addition to all this, keenly attuned to their own feelings, memories and intuitions, which means he or she can actually use what they know and feel about themselves to empathically tune in to others. The extent to which some people are able to do this, and do this even today in our highly technologised and rational urban societies, is surprising and inspiring. BUT: this ability also has a dark side: in psychoanalytical terms, sensitivity and an ability to tune in to others needs to be tempered by honesty, humility and a thorough awareness of one's own motives, fears and unconscious feelings or else a shaman, priest, psychologist or healer can easily get caught in a web of transference and projections, manipulation and deceit.
The office of shamanism is therefore not one without risk, both to those who call on shamans for help and for the shaman him or herself: if the results of their practice are beneficial they are assured of approval, protection and support, but if they fail, and that is an inherent risk (consider for example the challenge posed by epidemics of smallpox that shamans were powerless against) then shamans can be held responsible.
Of course shamanism refers to such a wide range of practices and beliefs that the subject can never be fully explored in a short article. My own interest in the subject stems from involvement in a specific "entheogenic" practice, a "religious" and healing tradition involving ingestion of psychoactive plants to produce non-ordinary states of consciousness. I spent 13 years researching and writing on the subject to explain to myself and others how this practice can help us, both individually and collectively, to understand human behaviour and gain a better understanding of religious and mystical experience and its relationship to brain chemistry on the one hand and to psychology and development on the other.
My exploration of non-ordinary states and their utility in therapy, healing and diagnosis led to eminently reasonable and simple insights into the (unconscious) subjective experiences that ground our behaviour and outlook and serve as models of our relationships to self- other, and the world. These insights and skills and my practice as a facilitator of such experiences for others suggest to me the possibility of a common thread that could help to reconcile a wide variety of religious experiences and practices, healing practices and texts with scientific understandings of the world.
This idea motivates my interest in shamanism as a set of experiences, insights, practices and outcomes that are eminently worthy of our attention, that can contribute and complement our understanding and skills and that, through our ability to understand how these things work, empower us and enable us to understand human spirituality and other areas of concern and implement our understandings to produce enduring societal and cultural changes. While many 'seekers' look to these practices either with a certain amount of nostalgia for a bygone era, or for some sort of personal transformation, my interest extends to considering what they might mean in terms of who we are, what we need, and what kind of social and cultural institutions we could create to resolve or "heal" serious global conditions.
—Daniel Waterman, Mar. 2018