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Shamanic Healing


Shamanism and Healing:
What is Shamanic Healing?

Shamanic healing is very different from that which is referred to as healing in Western medicine. Throughout nearly all of human life on Earth, it was the shaman and spirit team who people went to for healing. Actually, it is only the barest sliver of recent history where a medical model has assumed for itself the one-and-only 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. After 30 or 40 thousand years or so of shamanic history, with individuals practicing, learning, testing and passing down what 'works' from teacher to student, it is hardly surprising that widely separated shamanic practices are not only very similar to one another, but that they are actually quite effective. It’s simply human: what doesn’t work is discarded, and what does work is retained.

Shamanic healing has a remarkably consistent array of practices and world views pretty much every where you find it.  But what is being healed? Shamanism is sensitive to a spiritual, and nonordinary 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. But, the medical model and what it sees, and the shamanic model and what it sees, is like how physicists have stumbled across when they try to study light: the use one set of instruments clearly demonstrates that what we call 'light' is a particle. However, those who use a completely different array of instruments, are just as certain that 'light' is a wave.

It is actually a tug at our sensibilities to feel certain they are studying, the 'same thing'. That is because how they are conceiving 'light' involves a
paradigm shift. If either set of phenomena under study is conceived of, observed and then understood, it has its own internal consistency. The same is true when understanding the difference between a medical model's understanding of healing, and that of shamanism. Physicians and shamanic practitioners conceive, observe and then understand healing from different paradigms. In essence, they look for and find different things.

In terms of 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', yet when they do, they are attributing certain physiological conditions for which the headache is a consequence. Now, this is complex and befuddling even to contemporary practitioners, who are also sometimes given to using contemporary medical terms and understanding contemporary medical situations, and bring to these situations their shamanic practice.

The woman whose story follows has been a longstanding practitioner. She had many spirit helpers, such as Crow-Man, Moon Bear and Sher-ah, who is a black panther. She writes of her healing journey, where she went to the lower world to meet these spirit helpers, and then ask for a healing:


“I approached the Crow-Man, ‘I seek healing for my head’ I asked.  He replied ‘take this to the Moon Bear, and then lie in the crescent of the moon upon her chest. The crescent holds a healing power for pain such as this.’  He gave me nuts and honey. ‘Lay them by her side for her to reach from her sleep, and then lay upon the crescent moon.  By nightfall your head pain will have gone.”


“I do not know if I was surprised that he spoke perfect English suddenly or by what I was asked to do but I did as I was told. I lay down the nuts and honey beside her where she could reach them from her sleep, and then I lay upon the crescent moon. ‘She will not harm you’ said Sher-ah walking over, reassuring me. ‘She is your friend and guide. Her crescent moon holds healing for those who seek it. The Crow-Man is right.’  The tabby cat appeared, ‘come now quickly it is time for you to return.’ I sat up not sure I wanted to leave the healing. My head still hurt. ‘By nightfall,’ said Sher-ah as she walked away smiling confidently.”


“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 and each time it happened I imagined laying on the crescent moon of my Moon Bear friend.”


“At bed time I lay there thinking on it all and suddenly felt i knew what healings were undertaken by the moon Bear.  I knew they were stress pains.  I also learned that the Moon Bear could not deal with too many all at once or for too long as this too would cause her pain.  The honey and nuts were to help her recover after such healings. This is also probably why the healing seemed very short in the journey.”


“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.”


“Thank you my Moon Bear.”


This is an excellent example of shamanic work, this one being where the practitioner is working on herself. We do what the spirits direct us to do when a healing is called for, but we do not expect anything. We may hope, yes, but not expect. The spirits will give us only what we need. However, there is one thing that deserves some second thoughts.

Here, the client (who is also a practitioner) had actually asked for a healing for a migraine. However, in the shamanic work that was done, a 'migraine' is not what the spirits worked on.
Between shamanic healing and our ordinary reality healing there are vastly different world views at work. Since shamanism is focused on nonordinary reality, the practitioner would not be working with what contemporary medicine would call ‘cancer’ or ‘depression’, or in this case, 'migraine'. These are ways of understanding illness that utilize a medical model, not a shamanic one. A medical model would look at such things as biological, physiological and 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 where ‘dysentery’, ‘clinical depression’, ‘metabolism’ or 'migraine' appear. 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 separation from one’s personal power or a part of one’s soul. These are by and large, the 'lion's share' of illness discovered and treated through shamanic practice today in the western world. Both power and soul loss are commonly discovered in today's suffering clients, which is unsurprising when the dominant culture is working vigorously to sap these things from its members. Because illness (and here, we are not conceiving of 'illness' as a physiological 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.

In much practice today, the shamanic practitioner tries to help a client return to their original wholeness. 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 rely 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 does not occur in a vacuum... in other words, everything - including head pain - is related to everything else. Her pain when viewed in a shamanic manner is first associated with a spiritual malady since this is the lens through which the shamanic practitioner is working. 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 can be affected by physical work. This is a 'no-brainer' to the shamanic practitioner: each practitioner is aware that he or she is the 'bridge' that is able to span between physical and spiritual.

Because healing is a team effort, incapable of being accomplished by either practitioner or spirits alone, it is incorrect to say that the spirits, or the practitioners, are the ‘healers’! Healing is a shared practice between the spirit world and the practitioner. But even this is not a sufficient explanation, and this is something that is becoming more recognized by the contemporary medical, psychological,social work and shamanic professions. Shamanism shares the recognition that 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 do the rest to maintain and further the healing that they must want to take place. Without the client’s involvement and whole-hearted support towards their own healing, there is no reason to suspect that it will happen. Like pulling a drowning person back to shore, if they do not hang on to something firm once they arrive there, they may easily slip back to sea. Unfortunately, it has become too easy for suffering people to ignore their role in the healing work, yet when this happens, there is nothing to prevent backsliding from whatever was accomplished through the team efforts of practitioner and spirit helpers.

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

Indications may suggest that 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. 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 can assume they can do it all.

In the contemporary world, it is an important matter for 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 
Stories of Healing on this website.