The Reawakening of Shamanism in the West1
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Fall/Winter 2003, Vol. 16, No. 2

Page 3 (continued)

Western Shamanism

Western practitioners of shamanism are of three types, falling into two main categories:

1. Those who follow one specific indigenous (or pseudo-indigenous) form of shamanism. They are sometimes disparagingly called “wannabes.” A useful term for them might be “followers.”

2. Those who practice a revised form of shamanism. Townsend’s14 neo-shamanists and core shamanists are of this type. These people might be termed “pioneers,” with neo-shamanists further identified as “eclectic,” while core shamanists could be seen as “conservative.”

Followers look to the traditions of other groups to find their spirituality. They are uncomfortable with, or even alienated from, conventional spiritual alternatives provided by their own culture and seek instead an approach divorced from this culture. They typically romanticize their adopted system, overstating its positive attributes while ignoring negative aspects. They often focus on overt symbols of their adopted group such as ritual, costume, and language. They may fall victim to distortions of the native system they are emulating such as adopted Pan-Indian elements that had no place in a particular Native American group’s traditional culture. They may accept a guru who to them represents bona fide expertise in the adopted system, and who is thus authentic. This person also will usually be charismatic. Through enacting ritual, making pilgrimages, or even living communally, these people become members of a group and are authenticated by that membership and the group’s activities.

Eclectic pioneers typically appropriate elements from several shamanic traditions as well as some invented or reinvented by their contemporaries.15 They may also take specific ritual, objects, or beliefs from non-shamanic sources. This approach, which lacks a specific shamanic or cultural integrity, is consistent with other New Age homogenizing where specific content is an expression of what works for individuals, according to their personal experience with various spiritual systems. As Conton 16 and Townsend 17 point out, consistent themes of what I call eclectic pioneer shamanic practice are an earth-centered spiritual philosophy with strong ecological overtones, an idealization of past cultures and societies, an idealization of simpler societies who are revisited as noble savages, and an apocalyptic faith. I also have seen in many of these people an overarching belief in a progressive evolution of the universe and its inhabitants framed in developmental language.

Conservative pioneers are coterminous with the practitioners of core shamanism and are, one way or another, practitioners of Michael Harner’s distillation of universal or near-universal shamanic methods. The specific intent of this approach is to practice a methodology which is the common property–by heritage–of all humans. The original inventions of elements of this common heritage are lost in the mists of time, but are certainly tens of thousands of years old. As such, they cannot be attributed to any specific living group and thus become the property of all living people.

Core shamanism emphasizes the shamanic journey, an excursion into nonordinary reality by an individual or group of individuals facilitated by monotonous drumming. The excursion is purely a consciousness experience. The destination(s) of the journey is/are the conventional Lower, Middle, and Upper Worlds. Individuals are taught to journey in a weekend workshop, focused on methodology. Each participant has as a goal in initial journeys the meeting of at least one of their own existing power animals and spirit teachers. These become the indispensable resources of each person for further shamanic work. Participants are taught that shamanism is designed for healing, both of self and others. Ritual is conspicuously underplayed except for those implicit in the methods taught in the workshop such as power animal retrievals, etc. The consistent thrust of teaching is for participants to rely on their own spiritual resources. This reliance includes specific healing methods and rituals that are taught by spirits and often replicate ethnographically reported methods and ritual of which the person receiving the teaching is unaware. The “tradition” in core shamanism is methodology. This has the effect of freeing up practitioners from culturally specific restrictions that, while appropriate in their culture of origin, are seen as unnecessary in the contemporary American setting. Other traditions are expected to emerge in the course of time as practitioners explore and communities emerge.

The Foundation for Shamanic Studies is the vehicle for training and other work in core shamanism. Advanced workshops are offered through the auspices of the Foundation which give concentrated training in specific methodologies such as soul-retrieval, extraction healing, divination training, working with the spirits of nature, working with death and its consequences, etc. The rationale behind using the workshop format, in addition to its being structurally salient in modern American society, is that the modern world and its destructive forces work at high speed, so disseminating training in shamanic healing needs also to be fast and efficient.18

Core shamanism workshops in the United States and Canada are attended primarily by Euro-Americans, with a small number of Native Americans and Hispanics. Very few Blacks attend, which is also true for other ethnic groups. Females significantly predominate over males. Because workshops are fee-based, they recruit mostly from those with discretionary money although Native Americans receive partial scholarship rebates. The predominant age group represented in workshops is from the late twenties to the late fifties. Participants are typically well-educated.19

No claim is made by the Foundation that workshops make laymen into shamans. The Foundation’s position is that this can only be the result of community recognition and is ultimately based on demonstrated, consistently successful healing work. Other than certification for Harner Method Shamanic Counselors, there is no form of credentialing by the Foundation except to note who has successfully taken the first, or “Basic” workshop, which qualifies a person to take advanced work.

While most Foundation workshops are weekend affairs, some are longer training courses, stretching to as long as three years. These longer workshops become significant community builders among shamanic practitioners. The networks that emerge from all workshops, particularly the longer ones, create a unique situation for shamanic practitioners.20

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