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The Shaman's Body
The Shaman's Body

How do we relate to our body? How do our ideas about our body impact our role as a shamanic practitioner? These are complex and sometimes 'charged' questions, even though one's body is as much a part of a shamanic practitioner's experience as it is the necessary 'vehicle' of any other person on the planet.

The subject of human bodies might not receive sufficient conversation, perhaps out of general, culturally socialized taboos and personal embarrassment. However, since being human is really pretty difficult withouta body, the following practitioner question is a wonderful way to open up this body-topic for discussion.

The question (below) refers to just one bodily experience: sexuality. However, this question allows us to open a door to the whole body, not just sexuality, and begins to suggest a sense of what practitioners face as they step with their bodies into what may be the most Earthy, organic, life-accepting spirituality on the planet.

"Hi Steve,
Something’s been bothering me and I am a little hesitant and maybe embarrassed to bring it up, but I feel I have to. I have been practicing merging this week because I know how important it is to my practice. On occasion when I have reached a deep merge, it has taken on a sexual feel to it. There are no actions and it is quite innocent but it has that feel to it.  I asked my spirit teacher for clarification and he said it is just that we are moving into a deeper more personal relationship to do the work that we will be doing. He also said that with the merge I am experiencing his power and it is not uncommon to feel that way. Please tell me this is not uncommon and that other practitioners have experienced this!"
Please do not think I'm crazy!

Here is how I responded:

"I am happy to provide the reassurance that this is particularly ordinary! It is one of the things that nearly everyone who is a practitioner is a little hesitant to talk about, just as it would be hard for someone in psychotherapy to confess all their ‘hidden’ sexual thoughts and urges to their analyst! It has less to do with shamanism, and more to do with the human psyche. Whether one ascribes to a Jungian, Freudian, or just about any other form of psychotherapy or analysis, the inner reaches of the human psyche are absolutely full of sexuality, and it is the conscious role-playing social ‘super-ego’ self that gets all bothered by the basic urges of our deeper self.
The difference is not that you are changing, but that you are more aware. Sexuality is a primal fact of human biology, and despite the pretty clothes and façade of civilization, this is a huge part of our being human. The socially instructed and educated part of us determines what to do, or not do, with this huge part of us, and one of the primary ways of ‘dealing’ with it is to ignore it and put our attention elsewhere. However, moving as you are into the core of yourself, you are becoming more aware.
Just as one celebrates any other part of life, I would suggest that you simply celebrate this important and vital part of yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to do anything with it! Just recognizing it is there, and re-acquainting and re-adjusting to this very nature based, animal part of your totality of being is a lot.
Other ways of looking at it: 
First, it may be your spirit helper’s way of teaching you and bringing you to a stronger, healthier personhood (one of the shamanic ways of framing it).
Second, it may be simply the power of the spirit helper that is unencumbered by human society’s ‘rules of life’, and you are experiencing this power. Spirit helpers, as you recall, are not limited or bound by human morality and ethics. It is up to you as a practitioner to assume the role of determiner of what is ethical or moral when working with the spirit world. That is the shaman’s responsibility (another of the shamanic ways of framing it).
Third, it is currently the spring season, and with the huge increase in personal awareness you have been attaining through your journey work and practices of connecting with the natural world around you, you are tuning into the Earth’s yearly cycles. This includes you as part of the Earth! It is natural for biological beings to shift into ‘produce’ and ‘bear fruit’ cycles. Just look around you. This is normal, thank goodness, for the world would die out very quickly without it (planet-wide speaking, this would be a deep biological framing of it).
Fourth, it may be that you are becoming aware of, learning to recognize and reintegrating with other parts of yourself that have been held distant. There may be conflict between a deepest desire to connect with and a deep insecurity about the impact on your life of these reintegrating parts. After all, we have not held them at bay for so long because of our ease around them! With a slightly different, but connected perspective, it may or may not have anything to do with concerns about self-control, boundaries, etc. (this would be a more psychotherapeutic framing of it).
No matter how you choose to understand it, do understand that this is one of the less spoken of, but quite common experiences of shamanic practitioners, just as it is quite common in our nightly dream state!"
The practitioner then replied wrote:

"Hi Steve,
...I see what you are saying. I think I just need to acknowledge it and move on. I am learning more about myself each day and like you said this is a part of who we each are. I'm not uncomfortable with it. I feel I have strong ethics and certainly will not allow them to be compromised in any way. I appreciate your openness, honesty, and guidance. It helps to talk through these things… This rings true because my spirit helpers keep saying to me that I am growing as a person in all ways."

Much of the west’s general cultural milieu has been strongly influenced by religious reactions to sexuality throughout Europe over the last thousand years. There are cultures throughout our world that minimize, disrespect, shame, or even denigrate body experiences such as sexuality, food, hugs, bare skin, touch and elimination. Yours may be such a culture.This, of course, is not simply a Western phenomenon. Reactions to sexuality or other natural body phenomena can be found around the globe and appearing within a number of religions that believe humans, along with their appetites, are naturally ‘sinful’, 'dirty' etc.

In the West, the history of progressive religious and scientific ‘distancing’ of human identity from nature can easily be seen as a deeply embedded cultural influence. Shamanism as a nature-based spirituality celebrates life, rather than distancing from it. The Earth’s creatures are naturally given to feasting, laying around in the sunshine, basking in front of a warm fire, dancing, singing and sex. All of these things are enlivening, healthy activities that store up nutrition, clean and heal, bring communities and people together, and allow for the shared expression of what it is to be human. Sex brings us together, and extends the human race, insuring its survival.

Take for instance, the following experience of yet another practitioner:

“The gathering’s leader did an opening rattle work with us, that lasted some while, and during which time I felt a raw, sexual energy rising in me, like a Kundalini, that grew up in me and extended out in a circle into the room, and then back up into me, up and out again. It was raw, primal power, very earthborn, very normal, deep, vital, raw energy. This energy I can harness for shamanic work.”

How do we relate to human bodies and the earthy nature of our whole being? The shaman’s body provides many possible tools in her or his practice. The body, in fact, can be as useful as is the shaman’s heart, drum, mind, intuition, sage, senses, rattle or anything else. However, some students of shamanic practice may find it more difficult to immediately access their full body as a shamanic ‘tool’. People seem to show up with tremendous differences in their 'body relatedness'. Some practitioners may more easily and naturally bring their whole body into the shamanic experience than others.

There are always exceptions, but for those who find it easier to work with their body there may have also been a family, ancestral, cultural or regional socialization where a high degree of relationship with the body was encouraged or even sanctified, and at the very least, normalized as simply the rich and full experience of being human. Perhaps, these were cultures whose spirituality was very 'Earthy' and where the sacred was found in the world itself.

More recently, I received this experience in a letter by another practitioner:

"I did the sage ceremony under the sky, then Called the Directions. Bear waited for me as usual and she led me somewhere where I saw a tent and a single person sitting outside. He had hair of feathers, seemed half bird half man. He spread his wings and we soared together upwards, merged as enormous dragonflies. Our sexual intercourse lasted until the call-back. I won’t go into details, but I felt complete abandonment and exhilaration."
In this particular experience, this practitioner may be in the process of opening up to her true self's expression, and setting herself free as indicated by the complete abandonment. However, this is for her to decode on her own, and perhaps by returning to her spirit helpers and asking them directly.

Sex-related matters are often difficult for those unfamiliar with shamanism to understand: for instance a sacred union during a merge, which runs completely counter to many people’s ideas of what is morally right, or even sane. Gender roles or sexual mores do not necessarily pertain in the spiritual life, and when people have rigid ideas about reality, gender, truth or divinity, there is always the potential for moral indignation and judgment regarding the body or sexuality.
When during a soul or power retrieval a practitioner is taken to soul parts, he or she may be shown special things to bring back with the soul part that empower the client’s life. Such things can be joy, creativity, or sexuality! These are things that may have been lost, and the loss shows up as weakness or a shortcoming in some area of life. Abusive treatment is a common catalyst to soul loss, and can be inflicted physically, sexually, or emotionally. Practitioners may find themselves bringing back a person’s power in the form of spirit helpers that had stayed with the soul part when it originally fragmented off, perhaps in order to protect it and keep it safe. Yes, you guessed it: this ‘power’ may be sexual vitality.

It is likely that the dominant spirituality of a body-distancing culture is one that idealizes the sacred as separate from the world. With such a background socialization, a practitioner could naturally find him or herself working a little harder to fully utilize their own body as a shamanic tool, such as by dancing, singing, or even simply moving around. Though there are many exceptions, those who find it harder to use their body as a shamanic 'tool' may have been socialized this way.

Shamanism recognizes that the full, whole, empowered person is the one who has the greatest opportunity for a healthy life of well-being. It is a kind of 'original spirituality' that took form globally and naturally, and long before the earthy, fecund richness of the world with its wild, glistening vitality was mislabeled as 'dirty'.