The Reawakening of Shamanism in the West1
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Fall/Winter 2003, Vol. 16, No. 2
Page 4 (continued)
Workshops are also taught outside the auspices of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. They follow the particular format and content of the teacher. In these workshops, the goals are variable, again according to the teacher. For example, they may follow the theme of a recently published book and be taught by its author. They often employ special buzzwords such as “warrior” and “medicine wheel” in their titles, terms with powerful emotional “hooks” that attract clients to the workshop. Pilgrimages, like workshops, are offered to eclectic practitioners. These are typically led by the guru of a particular approach to special “power” or sacred places such as Machu Picchu.
Pioneer practitioners of both the core and eclectic forms of Western shamanism, according to Townsend,21 constitute a “cognitive minority” that is maintained, not by group membership, but by attendance at workshops, going on pilgrimages, and more significantly perhaps, by utilizing published materials and sophisticated telecommunications technology such as the Internet. In this they are similar to New Age devotees. Web pages and chat rooms provide material, contact, and virtual opportunities to be shamanic. The growth of these resources has been truly astronomical. Books, popular and academic, appear each year on shamanism, which are devoured by seekers. Conferences relating to shamanism are also available as sources of information and as rejuvenating opportunities. Published materials focusing mainly on Western shamanism include three main periodicals: Shaman’s Drum Magazine, Shamanism, and Shamanic Applications Review.
Although the Foundation for Shamanic Studies fosters no official group, a volunteer telephone directory used for networking is maintained and published once a year as a part of the Resource Guide issue of Shamanism. The Foundation encourages the growth of “drumming circles,” relatively informal groups of practitioners who meet more or less regularly to journey and work together shamanically. Personal discovery and exploration, mutual support, self-healing, and client work are the basis of drumming group attendance. Most practitioners are solitary, however.
It is difficult to know how many trained people continue to practice and what the level of practice is of those who continue. In the core shamanism tradition, the sense I have is that the majority of trainees fall away from practice. Some continue on, taking advanced workshops and training courses, eventually exhausting the resources of the Foundation. A small number continue, year after year, in drumming circles and some practice shamanic healing in private practice settings. Of those, we hear that some have remarkable careers and are judged by their clients as genuine shamans or shamanic practitioners (the term usually preferred in the West).
This pattern is no different from what one would find in any society where shamans occur. Some individuals achieve modest success doing healing work and are recognized for this by a small local group. These persons are described as “family shamans” or by some similar term of restricted scope. Others attain recognition over a wider area and among a more diverse community, while a small number are known regionally as great shamans. It would seem that Western shamans are being subjected to the same winnowing process as traditional shamans living in tribal settings have been for millennia.
In the foregoing material we find that America at the beginning of the 21th Century remains a fertile seed bed for spiritual/religious innovation and that one form of this has been a steady emergence of shamanic spirituality, growing particularly out of the revolutionary foment of the 1960s. The current interest in shamanism worldwide cannot be unrelated to this American phenomenon. Of course, other factors such as the Soviet collapse and the emerging Chinese open economy are involved, as are doubtless other factors. But, worldwide scholarly and other interest in shamanism has burgeoned at roughly the same time as the Western reawakening of shamanism and this can hardly be a coincidence. What might account for this American phenomenon that may be rubbing off on the rest of the world?
Harner, in the preface to the Third Edition (tenth anniversary edition of The Way of the Shaman), considers some reasons why this renaissance is underway. Harner22 finds that:
1. The Age of Faith has been replaced by the Age of Science wherein individuals no longer are as willing to accept spiritual dogma and insist instead on firsthand experience as a teacher of important truths. This is an impact of the experimental method.
2. Scientific experimentation involving observations made under the influence of LSD could be understood from a shamanic perspective.
3. Near-death experiences, made more common by medical science, turned out to be personal experiments that challenged existing understandings of reality and the existence of spirits, which were clarified from a shamanic point-of-view.
4. Shamanic methods involving journeying with the drum are safe and effective.
5. Shamanic methods work quickly and fit well into the fast-paced lifestyle of modern life.
6. Holistic health approaches have rediscovered ancient shamanic methods and their effectiveness and now incorporate them into practice.
7. We are rediscovering spiritual ecology, which requires that we again connect with our planet and its other inhabitants in order to maintain our survival.
To this list I would add several observations. Our concern for our damaged environment has largely come from our new “priests:” the physical scientists, who have been warning about global warming, pollution of air and water, declining resources such as petroleum, loss of ozone, and such for decades. However, these priests carry no sacred authority to underwrite their warnings. In fact, they have purposely distanced themselves from the sacred and have taken refuge in the secular and objective aspects of reality. Scientists’ conclusions are only as good as their latest observations, a point easily and frequently exploited by politicians. Scientists command no moral authority. In the United States they have little political power at present. Shamanism, designed as it is around an animistic philosophy, can provide a sacred charter for the ecological imperatives we recognize. Underwriting ecology from this deep, heartfelt perspective provides the moral basis for supporting sound ecological practice and feeds back to validate shamanism.
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