Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone
An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie Horrigan
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

Michael Harner, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving shamanic knowledge as it survives on the planet and to teaching the basic principles of that knowledge for practical applications in the contemporary world.

Harner, who has practiced shamanic healing since 1961, received his doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley. He is a former professor and chairperson of the department of anthropology at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York, and has taught at Columbia, Yale, and UC Berkeley. He also served as co-chair of the anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences. His books include The Jívaro, Hallucinogens and Shamanism, and the classic The Way of The Shaman.

In the course of his academic study of shamanism, Harner lived and worked with indigenous peoples in the Upper Amazon, Mexico, Peru, the Canadian Arctic, Samiland, and western North America.

Alternative Therapies interviewed Harner at his office in Mill Valley, California, during an intense storm. The following article is from the FSS journal, Shamanism, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer) 1997, and was originally published in 1996 in Vol. 2, No. 3 of Alternative Therapies.

What is Shamanism?

Michael Harner:
The word "shaman" in the original Tungus language refers to a person who makes journeys to nonordinary reality in an altered state of consciousness. Adopting the term in the West was useful because people didn't know what it meant. Terms like "wizard," "witch," "sorcerer," and "witch doctor" have their own connotations, ambiguities, and preconceptions associated with them. Although the term is from Siberia, the practice of shamanism existed on all inhabited continents.

After years of extensive research, Mircea Eliade, in his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, concluded that shamanism underlays all the other spiritual traditions on the planet, and that the most distinctive feature of shamanism—but by no means the only one—was the journey to other worlds in an altered state of consciousness.

" our culture many consider it avant-garde if a person talks about the mind-body connection, but the fact that the brain is connected to the rest of the body is not the most exciting news. It's been known for hundreds and thousands of years. What's really important about shamanism, in my opinion, is that the shaman knows that we are not alone. By that I mean, when one human being compassionately works to relieve the suffering of another, the helping spirits are interested and become involved."

Shamans are often called "see-ers" (seers), or "people who know" in their tribal languages, because they are involved in a system of knowledge based on firsthand experience. Shamanism is not a belief system. It's based on personal experiments conducted to heal, to get information, or do other things. In fact, if shamans don't get results, they will no longer be used by people in their tribe. People ask me, "How do you know if somebody's a shaman?" I say, "It's simple. Do they journey to other worlds? And do they perform miracles?"

Is shamanism a religion?

The practice of shamanism is a method, not a religion. It coexists with established religions in many cultures. In Siberia, you'll find shamanism coexisting with Buddhism and Lamaism, and in Japan with Buddhism. It's true that shamans are often in animistic cultures. Animism means that people believe there are spirits. So in shamanic cultures, where shamans interact with spirits to get results such as healing, it's no surprise that people believe there are spirits. But the shamans don't believe in spirits. Shamans talk with them, interact with them. They no more "believe" there are spirits than they "believe" they have a house to live in, or have a family. This is a very important issue because shamanism is not a system of faith.

Shamanism is also not exclusionary. They don't say, "We have the only healing system." In a holistic approach to healing, the shaman uses the spiritual means at his or her disposal in cooperation with people in the community who have other techniques such as plant healing, massage, and bone setting. The shaman's purpose is to help the patient get well, not to prove that his or her system is the only one that works.

In many cultures, shamans are often given gifts for their work, but they will return all the gifts if the patient dies, which I think is a commendable innovation that might help us with the costs of health services today.

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