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What is Shamanic Healing

What is Shamanic Healing?

Shamanic healing is very different from that which is understood as healing in Western medicine. Throughout nearly all of human life on Earth, the shaman and spirit team were those who we went to for healing, not physicians. Actually, it is within only the barest sliver of recent history where a medical model has assumed the healing role, and this, only in the more 'developed' areas of the globe, which have slipped farthest away from an indigenous, natural relationship with the Earth.

For 30 or 40 thousand years or so of shamanic history, individuals practiced, learned, tested and passed down what 'works' from teacher to student. Thus, it is hardly surprising that widely separated shamanic practices are not only very similar to one another, but are actually quite effective. It’s simply human: what doesn’t work is eventually (even if reluctantly) discarded, and what does work is retained.

Shamanic healing has a remarkably consistent array of practices and tends to view the world in pretty consistent core ways most everywhere you find it. But what is being healed? Shamanism is sensitive to a spiritual, and non-ordinary reality, not the reality observed by the medical model, or for that matter, the reality most often assumed by people living in the contemporary who have been surrounded by a medical paradigm since childhood. The medical model sees one thing, and the shamanic model sees another. In one way, this situation is similar to a quandary physicists stumble across when studying light: the use one set of instruments clearly demonstrates that 'light' is a particle, yet those who use a completely different array of instruments are just as certain that 'light' is not a particle, but a wave.

It tugs at our sensibilities to consider that they different models of healing, as in physics, are looking at the 'same thing'. That is because in both cases this involves a paradigm shift. A paradigm is the largest conceivable frame with which one understands something, which has its own internal consistency. Physicians and shamanic practitioners conceive, observe and then understand healing from different paradigms. In essence, they look for and find different things. And, in shamanism, it is the influence of non-ordinary reality on ordinary reality that is a primary reason it is understood to be effective.

The following is an example of one woman’s healing of a headache. Now, some in the contemporary world would call her headache a 'migraine', and when they do, are attributing certain physiological conditions for which the headache is a consequence. This co-existence of shamanic and contemporary medical ways of understanding is complex and befuddling to contemporary practitioners, who often unconsciously bring contemporary medical terms and understandings to their shamanic practice.

She describes what happened during a shamanic journey that she did for finding healing for her headache: 

 “I approached (a spirit helper, and said:) ‘I seek healing for my head’... 

The spirit helper gave her a series of some particular directions that included the help of other spirit helpers and concluded,

"'By nightfall your head pain will have gone.' 

I came out of my journey and as I did so knocked the sage burner and it went out instantly. I waved the feather gently but could still hear her words, ‘By nightfall.’
… soon after the journey the migraine subsided but did not go, by bedtime I was still aware it was there but it was much better. During the day, I had episodes of intense pain coming and going...
At bed time, I lay there thinking on it all...I knew they were stress pains...
As it was late i had drifted into a doze and then suddenly shot awake.  The first thing I was aware of was the headache had gone. Truly.”

This is an example of shamanic work where a practitioner is engaging spirit help to work on herself. In all cases of shamanic work, we do what the spirits direct us to do, but we do not expect anything. We may hope, yes, but not expect. The spirits will give us in terms of healing or of anything else, only what we need. However, there is one thing that stands out in her brief account when we consider how the intersection of shamanism and the medical model of healing is truly a meeting of paradigms.

Here, the client (who is also a practitioner) asked for a healing for a migraine. However, in shamanic work a 'migraine' is not what spirits would be working on. Between shamanic healing and our ordinary reality healing there are vastly different world views. Since shamanism is focused on non-ordinary reality, the practitioner would not be working with what contemporary medicine would call ‘cancer’ or ‘depression’, or in this case, 'migraine'. These are terms describing a medical model understanding of illness, not a shamanic one. A medical model would look at such things as biological, physiological or psychiatric issues and choose a healing strategy based on biochemistry, ultrasound, chemotherapy, etc.

Shamanism simply does not view the world through the same ‘lens’ as that in which ‘dysentery’, ‘clinical depression’, ‘metabolism’ or in this case, a 'migraine' appears. These are phenomena conceptualized and recognized through the fields of medicine, psychology and nutrition. Instead of 'cells' and 'biochemistry' or 'thought disorders' and 'neuroses', the shaman sees a spirit-filled world with beings and forces that combine with untoward effects on a suffering person.

So if not physiological things, what does shamanism look for as factors leading to illness? Well, shamanic healing might be looking for where wholeness has been compromised, such as with one's separation from their personal power or a part of their soul. Loss of one's wholeness is by and large, the 'lion's share' of illness discovered and treated through shamanic practice in modern society. Both power and soul loss are commonly discovered in today's clients, which is unsurprising when the dominant cultures are working vigorously to drain these things from its members. In contemporary practice, the shamanic practitioner is often helping a client return to their original wholeness. 

Because illness (and here, we are not conceiving of 'illness' as a series of physiological events) manifests secondary to a separation from one’s power or soul part, the shaman may work to recover such power, perhaps, with a power animal retrieval. If an illness manifests following a separation from and loss of an integral part of the self (a soul part), the shaman gathers such lost parts by means of a soul retrieval.

Shamanic healers and practitioners utilizing a medical model are both working towards cures, but the nature of both illness and cure are reliant on completely different data and methodology. They are very different professions that rest on completely different perspectives. Consequently, shamans utilize techniques that are very different from those of the medical model, because they rest on a different understanding of illness and its causes.

Returning to our example above, head pain when looked at through a shamanic lens, does not occur in a vacuum... in other words, everything - including head pain - is related to everything else. Her pain when viewed in this way is first associated with a spiritual malady since this is the lens through which the shamanic practitioner works. Applying the hypothesis that everything is connected, it is always possible that physical phenomena, including head pain, could be affected by spiritual work. Of course, this would also be true the other way around: spiritual phenomena might be affected through work within a physical (in this case medical) paradigm. Each practitioner is aware that he or she is the 'bridge' who is able to connect the physical and spiritual.

Because healing is a team effort that is incapable of being accomplished by either practitioner or spirits alone, it is technically incorrect to say that either the spirits or the practitioners, are the ‘healers’! Healing is a shared practice between the spirit world and the practitioner. However, between the spirits and the shaman, it is the spirits who bring the healing power. The shaman is more of an assistant.

However, even noting that it is this team between spirits and shaman that allows healing to take place, is not a sufficient explanation either. There is more, which is something that is becoming more recognized by the contemporary medical, psychological, social work and the shamanic professions. There is even one more member of the 'healing team', without whose efforts, healing will not happen. The client.

The practitioner and spirits, just as in the case of other healing modalities, can only do so much and it is up to the client to maintain and further the healing. Without the client’s whole-hearted involvement and continued self-work towards their own healing, there is no reason to suspect that such healing will happen. Like pulling a drowning person back to shore, if they do not hang on to the shore once there, they may easily slip back to sea. Unfortunately, it has become easy for suffering people to ignore their role in healing work today, with the separation of the medical profession from the day-to-day living of the community itself. When people feel disempowered from taking part in their own healing, there is nothing to prevent backsliding from whatever was accomplished through the efforts of the practitioner and spirit help.

Because everything is so deeply interrelated, it is unsurprising when people with a medical illness show up in a shamanic practitioner's office. When people are in physical, social or psychological pain, they naturally seek help. This puts a critical burden on the practitioner, having to try to distinguish between appropriate healing modalities for their clients. Are they looking at a physical illness? A shamanic 'illness'? How does a shamanic practitioner deal with this?

A client's physical phenomena may accompany spiritual factors that the practitioner and spirits can address, whether related to the physical phenomena or not. However, whenever physiological phenomena are present, the practitioner should recommend that the client seek medical attention to determine if a problem resides there. There very well may be spiritual aspects of an ordinary reality illness that the practitioner can address, and these may or may not be related to physical matters. However, in order to provide responsible care, a shaman must encourage a client to consult the expertise of the medical profession as well. And, even when there is a physiological issue, since shamanism sees everything deeply interconnected, there is every reason to suspect that shamanic practices may be helpful, including those cases where physical phenomena are present.

But, this is up to the spirits. They will tell us. The shaman is attentive to matters that the medical model overlooks and the medical model is attentive to matters that are not spiritual in nature. These are completely different ways of looking at the world and then addressing the suffering that is found there. Shamanic healing can be complementary with a medical model, and neither one of these should rightfully assume they can ‘do it all.’

It is an important matter for today's shamanic practitioners as well as potential clients of practitioners, to be clear on the huge paradigm shift that stands between what the practitioner or client may hope for in healing. Clients do not have the training or experience to normally understand these differences, nor are they expected to. This is not an indigenous culture where shamanic concepts are commonly understood by the community at large. It is up to the practitioner to understand and then educate their clients, and through them, their communities.

For some interesting examples of shamanic healing experiences reported by practitioners, I encourage you to visit the article Stories of Healing on this website.