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.
My understanding is that there are two aspects to shamanic
healing: a medicinal one and a spiritual one.
Shamans talk with plants and animals, with all of nature.
This is not just a metaphor. They do it in an altered state
of consciousness. Our own students rapidly discover that by
talking with plants, they can discover how to prepare those
plants for remedies. Shamans have been doing this since ancient
times. They typically know a great deal about plants, but
it's not essential. For example, Eskimo shamans don't have
access to a lot of plants, so they work with other things.
But in the Amazon shamans know the various plants and the
songs that go with the plants, which they commonly learn from
the plants themselves.
One former student of mine in the United States developed
a practice of discovering and using healing plants based on
his learning directly from the plants. He found that the pharmacopoeia
he developed was very close to the ancient, classic Chinese
pharmacopoeia knowledge of how to prepare and use these plants
for different ailments. Another former student in Germany
worked with minerals and found how they could be used in healing.
It turned out that her discoveries were very close to what
has been known in India from ancient times.
Which brings us to a very important issue: everything that's
ever been known, everything that can be known, is available
to the shaman in the Dreamtime. That's why shamans can be
prophets; that's why they can also go back and look at the
past. With discipline, training, and the help of the spirits,
this total source of knowledge is accessible.
What happens when a sick person asks a shaman for a healing?
For example, a shaman might make a journey for diagnostic
purposes, to get information about the person's problems from
a spiritual point of view. It doesn't necessarily matter what
the diagnosis is from an ordinary reality point of view. There's
no simple one-to-one concordance between spiritual illness
and ordinary reality illness. You can't say, "This equals
that." So the shaman will often make a journey to find
out what the spiritual causality is and, according to that
causality, decide on the treatment.
From the shamanic point of view, people who are not powerful-spiritually
"power-filled," that is-are prone to illness, accidents,
and bad luck. This goes beyond our normal definition of illness.
The shaman restores a person's linkage to his or her spiritual
power. This spiritual power is something analogous to a spiritual
immune defense system, but I wouldn't make a one-to one equivalence.
It's an analog. The power makes one resistant to illness.
If somebody is repeatedly ill, then it's clear that they need
a power connection. A healthy person who is not sick might
go on a vision quest to get this power connection, but one
of the shaman's jobs is to help people who are in no condition
to do that for themselves.
Today in 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. When somebody who is disinterested, who
is not an immediate family member, out of generosity and compassion
helps somebody else to relieve illness or pain and suffering-and
it works even better when there are two or more shamans involved-this
is when miracles occur. So the big news shamanism offers is
not that the head is connected to the rest of the body, but
that we are not alone.
What is soul retrieval?
Anyone who's had a trauma, from a shamanic point of view,
may have had some loss of their soul. By soul we mean the
spiritual essence essential throughout one's life as we describe
life in our culture, which is from conception or birth to
the time of death. The techniques for healing soul loss are
soul-retrieval techniques, and one of the classic shamanic
methods is to go searching for that lost portion of the soul
and restore it.
Until about 8 years ago, most people in the Western world
felt that soul retrieval was a superstitious practice that
had no validity, but things have turned. I must say that a
major reason is the work of my colleague, Sandra Ingerman,
the author of Soul Retrieval and Coming Home. During her shamanic
Santa Fe, NM, years ago, women who had had significant childhood
abuse would mention in the course of the sessions that they
had removed themselves psychically from the situation at the
time of abuse. Sandra immediately recognized, as a practicing
shaman, that the person's soul to some degree had left the
body (if it had left completely, the person would have been
dead), and therefore the logical thing was to retrieve the
lost portion of the soul and bring it back. So she then started
doing soul retrieval for these people who had had significant
childhood traumas, and the results were astounding. Today,
this work is an important part of shamanic healing practice
in the West.
Indeed, if you ask a group of people, "How many of you
feel you've lost part of your soul?" it's typical that
everybody raises their hand. At some deep level, there is
a natural awareness of this problem. By the way, even a minor
trauma can result in some degree of soul loss and can be treated.
Another major technique in shamanic healing work is extraction.
Extraction involves removing a spiritual intrusion. Just as
there can be infections in ordinary reality, so there can
be spiritual intrusions. We don't mean that "evil"
spirits have entered. It's more like termites in a wooden
house. If you've got termites in your house, you wouldn't
say those termites are evil, you'd say, "I'd just like
to get them out of the house." In this same way the shaman
works to remove things that interfere with the health of the
body, such as spiritual intrusions, and extract them. This
is not done through journeying. It's done through working
here in the Middle World in an altered state of consciousness.
How is an altered state of consciousness achieved in shamanism?
In about 90% of the world, the altered states of consciousness
used in shamanism are attained through consciousness-changing
techniques involving a monotonous percussion sound, most typically
done with a drum, but also with sticks, rattles, and other
instruments. In perhaps 10% of the cultures, shamans use psychedelic
drugs to change their state of consciousness.
I was introduced to shamanic work in 1961 among the Conibo
Indians in eastern Peru, with the aid of native psychedelics.
When I came back to the United States and no longer had my
supply of ayahuasca, I experimented with drumming. Much to
my surprise, it really worked. It should not have surprised
me, because drums were reportedly used by shamans almost worldwide.
Virtually everything you find in shamanism is done because
it works. Over tens of thousands of years, shamans developed
the most time-tested system of using the spirit, mind, and
heart for healing, along with plant remedies, and so on. Again,
the system is time-tested. So if healers in 90% of the shamanic
cultures are using the same methods, we pay attention to them.
And, of course, we find they work.
To get back to the extraction technique: the technique involves
an altered state of consciousness and seeing into the client's
body. Much shamanic work, including journeying and extraction,
is done in darkness for a very simple reason. The shaman wishes
to cut out the stimuli of ordinary reality- light, sound,
and so on-and move into unseen reality. The shaman learns
to look in the body with "x-ray vision" and see
the illness and its location, and then to extract that illness.
Is that like depossession?
Depossession is related to extraction but it's not the same
thing. From a shamanic point of view, it's very important
to get out of the Middle World when journeying for spiritual
purposes. In the old days, shamans journeyed in the Middle
World to see how relatives were doing at a distant place or
to locate the herds of migratory animals. But most of our
work today is in the Upper and Lower Worlds where shamans
have voyaged since ancient times. Shamans often prefer not
to draw on the spirits of the Middle World because many of
them are confused and lacking in power. Going to the Upper
or Lower Worlds, one reaches spiritual beings of compassion,
power, and wisdom.
Shamans who do another type of healing help the dead as well
as the living. These shamans are called "psychopomps,"
or conductors of souls. Remember, from a shamanic point of
view, when you're comatose, you're dead. So the shaman, in
the case of comatose persons, would seek them out and see
if they wanted to come back. Shamanism is not a system that
intends to keep people in this ordinary reality whether they
like it or not, because the shaman knows that this is not
necessarily the best reality. You make the journey for the
person who is comatose to find out what they want. If they
want to come back, then the job of the shaman is to bring
them back. But if they want to go on- or, more commonly, if
they're dying or already dead-then the job of the shaman is
to get them to a place where they will be content and not
have them stay here, adrift in the Middle World.
So now we come back to this business of depossession. Most
cases of depossession of humans are by other humans who are
dead, who are here in the Middle World and don't know they're
dead. If people are disempowered, or have soul loss or power
loss, they are like a vacuum into which these confused entities
can come. This is involuntary possession.
Shamans will conduct the entity-with its permission once it
realizes it's dead-to a place beyond the Middle World where
it will be reunited with people who it loves. Once this is
done, so that the clients are no longer possessed, shamans
restore their full soul and lost power connections so they
are again whole and not vulnerable to further possessions.
Depossession work has slightly different forms in different
cultures, but the basic principles are the same. I hope that
one day our culture will recognize the need to permit shamanic
practitioners to work with the spiritual aspects of illness
in cooperation with nonspiritual health professionals.
In your opinion, why don't we do that now?
Unfortunately, when science started, partially as a reaction
to the church in Europe, it ordained that souls and spirits
have no reality and therefore could not be considered in scientific
theory. Now that's an a priori position; in other words, ironically,
a statement of faith enunciated in the 18th century. In fact,
science has never disproved the existence of spirits. I would
submit that now, on the edge of the 21st century, it's time
to stop having a science that's based on faith (the faith
that there are no spirits) and make it real science, which
means that it doesn't ordain a priori that certain types of
causes cannot exist.
In regard to extraction healing, in the shamanic view,
where does the illness to be extracted come from?
From a shamanic point of view, all people have a spiritual
side, whether they recognize it or not. When people get angry,
jealous, or have a hostile emotional attitude, they can vent
not only verbal and physical abuse, but spiritual abuse without
even knowing it. In other words, if somebody is ignorant of
shamanic principles, they can do damage to other people on
a spiritual level.
Among the Untsuri Shuar and Jívaro people of eastern Ecuador,
with whom I lived for quite a while, they call these intrusions
"magical darts." There were many feuds and wars,
and sometimes healers would get angry and lose their discipline
and use their powers to get even. But it is important to know
that this is a big mistake, not just ethically, but in terms
of self-preservation. No matter how justified a person feels
emotionally at the time, those spiritual beings who are representative
of the great, loving, hidden universe will disconnect. It's
like we're rechargeable batteries. We still have some power,
and we can do damage, but the power source is no longer charging
us. I've seen this many times in the Amazon. The shamans,
in their anger, do harm for awhile, but eventually everything
they send out comes back in on them, and it often results
not only in their own death or pain, but their immediate family
gets affected disastrously by it.
This doesn't mean you shouldn't get angry at people. It just
means that you should have discipline and know there are parameters.
You can get angry with somebody and verbally let out steam
and, at the same time, control your spiritual side. But for
your own self-preservation, if you don't work to relieve pain
and suffering-and especially if you work in a contrary way-you're
soon out of business, and probably dead.
If I understand the concept, shamans restore wholeness
and power to a human being, and then that wholeness and power
heals whatever is wrong with that person. So in this framework
a power-filled person has the ability to heal himself.
To an outsider, it would look like they're healing themselves.
But the concept of self-healing excludes the spirits. From
the shamanic point of view, nobody's lived into adult life
without spiritual help, whether they know it or not. The self-healing
concept is a secular concept, and that's fine as far as it
goes. It teaches people to take some responsibility for their
illness. But it also teaches them to take responsibility for
their death. With that approach, everybody's a failure at
the moment of death, because they are responsible for the
whole thing. From a shamanic point of view we are not that
important. We are not necessarily the biggest thing in the
universe. The shaman has a more humble point of view, that
there is what looks like self-healing but, in fact, we are
getting help. And the shaman has the role, of course, of accelerating
So the person is not healing himself?
They might be in a specific case. I don't want to rule that
out. Self-healing is a very secular view of reality, but it's
a step in consciousness. It's like recognizing the brain is
connected to the body.
Can you talk about the difference between ordinary reality
and nonordinary reality, especially regarding the implications
The terms "ordinary reality" and "nonordinary
reality" come from Carlos Casteneda. Ordinary reality
is the reality that we all perceive together. It's the reality
in which we can all agree that there is a clock on the wall.
Nonordinary reality is the reality that is associated with
the shamanic state of consciousness; that is, when the consciousness
has been altered and you're able to see what you normally
don't see in an ordinary state of consciousness.
Ordinary reality is something that virtually everybody agrees
on. Nonordinary reality is very person-specific. The information
obtained in nonordinary reality is tailor-made to the individual-other
people may not perceive it at all, as opposed to the information
obtained in ordinary reality, in which everybody gets the
Nonordinary reality is also an empirical reality; that is,
the person interacts with it, sees it, touches it, hears it,
feels it. And the shaman sees with the heart in that reality.
In nonordinary reality, for something to be the same for different
persons, it has to be the same in the heart. Here (in ordinary
reality) for something to be the same it doesn't matter what
your emotion is; you'll see it, for example, as a door in
the room. If I showed you a picture of my mother, now deceased,
you and I would not have the same emotional relationship with
that picture. But if I said the word "mother," and
everyone saw their own mother, the emotional feeling in the
heart would be closer-not identical, but closer. So to see
things exactly the same in the heart, they have to be a little
different for each person, because each person has a different
personality and a different life history.
The term "nonordinary reality" is useful because
it permits one to be reminded that access to these worlds
is related to the degree to which you have entered the shamanic
state of consciousness. It clarifies our thinking. For years,
many people were confused by what shamans said. "I made
a journey and was away for 3 years, and such and such happened."
Now that person in nonordinary reality had the experience
of living somewhere else for 3 years, but might have been
gone only a half-hour in ordinary reality.
What about divination?
Work in shamanism also involves divination. A person can journey
for themselves or have somebody who's a shamanic practitioner
journey for them to get an answer to a question. What's really
interesting is when somebody who's a complete stranger-about
whom the shaman knows nothing-asks for an answer to a question,
and the shaman then journeys or uses other techniques and
gets the exact information that's valid for that person's
life. This can happen because these things are known by the
spirits. The shaman doesn't need to know anything except the
methods, and to have his or her own spirit helpers.
How can doctors and nurses use this knowledge?
Sometimes I informally call our foundation the "University
of Shamanism." I bring that up because our primary purpose
is to return shamanism to the planet by training people. Many
of these people are doctors and other health professionals.
It is they who must discover how to integrate what they are
taught into their practices. We don't have a ready template
for that. Within the next few years, we hope to have a large-scale
conference of health practitioners who have studied with us,
to exchange information about how they have used these methods
in their practice.
I know the Foundation is conducting research regarding
drumming and health. Can you talk about that?
Our research, thanks to a Canadian foundation, is investigating
certain matters regarding shamanic journeying and drumming
and health. My wife, Dr. Sandra Harner, is the director of
the Shamanism and Health Project. Her research involves two
major aspects, one of which is the effect of shamanic journeying
and drumming on one measure of immune response and on emotions.
In connection with this work, she has gotten some hints that
people with certain profiles of psychological descriptors
respond much more effectively in terms of the immune response
than others. This is a subject, obviously, of considerable
interest. She has also found that there is a tremendous increase
in the sense of well being as well as decreased mood disturbance
and stress in people working with shamanic drumming and journeying.
But to say more would be premature.
It's ironic that a system of healing that-other than using
plants-is the oldest known system of healing in the world,
should have no research going on in it at all, other than
what we are able to do with our meager resources. I look forward
to the day when the possibility of spiritual causality is
not ruled out of research, so that science, in fact, can be
We also have what the medical profession would call "anecdotal"
accounts. People often come to the shamans when everybody
else has failed. We have cases in which, once people start
getting shamanic treatments and laboratory tests are continued,
the tests turn out negative, whereas they previously were
positive. The assumption from the medical profession is usually
that the previous diagnoses were incorrect, because there's
been a reversal. That's fine with us. After all, it's virtually
impossible, on a case-by-case basis, to prove causality. People
wonder, How do you know this works? Well, you just practice
it for your life and it develops a track record for you.
What are you working on now?
My primary interest right now is in miracles. I've devoted
some years now to finding out what principles are involved
to have miracles happen. I think we're making significant
progress. Almost everything that anybody's ever read about
in the shamanic literature or the miracle literature is something
that we have some knowledge of how to do now. And this includes
miracles of healing.
Starting next year, we will be moving forward on this project
with some of our most advanced students. I'm not in a position
to comfortably start sharing this information publicly-it's
too early-but it does involve a real awareness of the spirits.
I might say something about spirits, because it's a strange
word to people. What is a spirit? In 1961, when I was with
the Conibo Indians in eastern Peru in the Amazon, I was training
using ayahuasca with a shaman, and we were working with the
various nature spirits every night. I worked with the anaconda
spirit, the black panther spirit, the fresh-water dolphin
spirit, various tree spirits, and so on. They would come,
we would see them, and so on. Then one night I got introduced
to the outboard-motor spirit. And then the radio spirit and
the airplane spirit. I came to realize that anything that
you see in complete darkness or with your eyes closed is technically
a spirit. That makes it sound like it's just an image in the
air, but shamans find out which spirits have power and which
don't. They discover what spirits can help in what ways. It's
very important to recognize that whatever you contact in nonordinary
reality is technically a spirit. It's a spiritual reality.
Once a shaman contacts the spirits, what happens?
There's a crossover of the power from nonordinary reality
to ordinary reality. The two realities are conceptually discrete,
but the shaman is able to move the power of one over to the
other. When this is done successfully, that's how healings
occur and how we have what is called miracles.
Your interest in miracles was obviously spurred by your
experiencing or witnessing miracles. Would you be willing
to tell us a miracle story?
This is a very simple one that can be seen to this day, empirically,
in ordinary reality. One of our students, Carol Herkimer,
was in what we call a "spirit boat," along with
other members of a basic class. The spirit boat is a technique
used in aboriginal Australia, on the northwest coast of North
America, and in the upper Amazon. A group of shamans journey
together to the Lower or Upper world to go outside of time.
They may be going for healing or knowledge. When a whole group
of people, trained properly and in contact with spirits, journey
together to help one person, it's very powerful.
We were using a dance studio in lower Manhattan on Canal Street
called "The Kiva." Like any other dance studio,
it had highly polished floors, so we always had to be careful
not to scuff them. Carol was recovering from a terrible traffic
accident and she couldn't sit on the cushions on the floor
with the other people. She had to sit in a chair with bent
tubular metal legs. So we went off on the journey, and when
we came back (to ordinary reality), people shared what they
had encountered. When Carol went on the journey, she went
through a sea of fire in nonordinary reality. When she came
back, the floor was smoking under her chair, and the bent
aluminum tubular leg on one side had burned a channel into
the floor, but she hadn't gotten burned. The people who owned
the studio were quite upset, and to this day the burned channel
is still there.
This example alone doesn't prove anything, but it's these
kinds of coincidences that build up in your own practice.
In no single case can you be sure what actually happened,
but if you find a high correlation between treatments by people
who are well known as healing shamans and recoveries- when
other things have failed-then you begin to pay attention.
When you start shamanic journeying, if you're the kind of
person the spirits feel compassion for and want to help, you're
going to get lots of teachings you never asked for and never
expected. Because once you go through those doors-whatever
those doors are-the spirits will teach you according to your
preparation, and your life will change. Even one journey may
start changing your life.