Modern Shamanism

by Serge Kahili King

" You look more modern than I thought you'd be," said the visitor as we sat in my comfortable living room overlooking the ocean that surrounds the island of Kaua'i. He glanced at my large screen TV, the VCR, and the Tabora seascape on the wall with a faint trace of disapproval. Clearly I did not fit his model of what a shaman is supposed to look like.

His remark was typical of many visitors who expect - perhaps even hope - to find me wearing some kind of robe or sarong and living in primitive simplicity in a cave or a forest far away from the amenities of civilization. The general idea is that such a setting would somehow make me more authentic. I have even considered finding such a spot, having a ti-leaf skirt and cloak made, and giving all my visitors a nice show that would comfortably fit their preconceptions. Shamanism, however, is not limited to a particular location or style of dress or cultural environment. It is a way of thinking and acting that defies boundaries and limitations of any kind, and yet uses them when it fits a purpose.

In the old and ancient days the shaman - who was a healer of mind, body and circumstances - was right in the midst of tribal or village life. He or she might also play the part of priest/priestess or chief/cheifess if there were no one else to fill those roles, but the primary role was always that of the healer. The shaman took part in the work, play and cultural activities of the village and often used each of those for healing purposes, especially the cultural activities of art, song, dance and ritual. In some cultures the shaman wore distinctive clothing and only engaged in certain activities, while in others it was impossible to tell him or her apart from anyone else unless you were family, friend or acquaintance. When the shaman's services were called upon there was always appropriate compensation in goods or services of some kind, according to the local economic structure. In old Hawaii, for instance, those who made use of the shaman's healing abilities might in return give fruits and vegetables, livestock, tools, mats and/or clothing. Or they might give their services of fishing, farming, handcrafting or cleaning for a certain period. The important point is that the shaman was a part of the community, sharing its life and hopes and dreams and proximity. Isolation of the shaman from the community occured only in times of religious or political repression, and even then there were always links maintained with a few members of the community.

Now shamanism is experiencing a revival of interest and freedom. Now the shaman is coming back into the community where he/she belongs in a viable, vital, visible way. It isn't necessarily any easier now, but it is extremely important that the new shamans who are remembering and reviving the ancient skills become fully a part of today's society, become modern shamans in every sense of the word.

A modern shaman (or "urban" shaman, as I often say) is one who uses the ancient knowledge in the context of our present social and cultural environment. I will frequently tell my apprentices that anyone can be a shaman in the woods (where there are no people to get in the way); the tough task is to be a shaman in the city. And yet the shaman belongs where the people are. That does not mean the modern shaman must live downtown or in a crowded barrio, or in a fast-growing suburb, but it does mean that he or she integrate with and be accessible to those who are to be helped. The tough task of being a modern shaman is made tougher by the fact that shamanism has only recently begun its revival, and it does not have a strong basis of support in today's culture. In the absence of such support, shamans need to help each other. The success of modern shamans, then, will depend on adaptability, integration, and cooperation.

Shaman knowledge has to do with an awareness of, and the ability to direct, the powers of mind and the forces of nature. Adapting the ancient wisdom to modern society is a fairly simple process because human beings still have the same desires for health, wealth and happiness, and the same emotions of love, anger and fear. And Nature still has the same basic elements of (to use the Hawaiian version) Fire, Water, Wind and Stone. The shaman's healing work is still, as it always has been, to change beliefs and expectations in order to change experience. The wisdom and its application are the same, only the context is different. An ancient shaman in the deep forest of a volcanic island using his hands to heal a wound from a wild boar and a modern shaman in a high-rise apartment building using her hands to heal a wound from a domestic cat use the same wisdom. An ancient shaman diverting a lava flow to save a village and a modern shaman calming the wind to keep a forest fire from burning a suburb use the same wisdom. The shaman skills of telepathy, energy release, manifesting, shape-changing, blessing, belief-change and inner journeying are not affected by time. All that has to be done is to adapt them to existing circumstances.

Integration is more difficult in today's society because of its variety and complexity. Most ancient shamans only had one or very few socio-cultural systems to deal with, and therefore a limited number of beliefs to work on. Today, however, there is such a vast mixture of radically different social, cultural, religious and philosophical systems that the modern shaman must constantly expand his or her knowledge and maintain an exceptional awareness of the prevailing beliefs of his or her community and its individuals through heightened development of the intuitive faculties, as well as by paying close attention to information supplied by the media.

More than ever, there is the need for cooperation among modern shamans in order to maintain and extend the wisdom, to give each other moral and practical support (even shamans need friends and helpers), and to broaden the application of shamanism to modern problems. My solution has been to form Aloha International, a world-wide network of people studying and practicing the Hawaiian shamanic tradition, but there also needs to be cooperation among the shamans of different traditions. It is truly cooperation that is needed, because shamanism is truly a non-hierarchical, democratic philosophy. There is a tremendous amount of healing work to do, on ourselves and for the world in general. Let us do it together in a spirit of real Aloha.