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Shamanic Ritual and Practice: Introduction and Overview

Shamanic Ritual and Practice
Introduction and Overview

Shamanic practices you may have heard of, such as retrieving a power animal or returning a soul part, are complex mixtures of ability, technique, perhaps ritual, and most importantly, a strong relationship with one's spirit helpers. On the other hand, 'Calling in the Directions' or cleansing others or personal cleansing, are more specifically about ritual, such as to prepare the practitioner for shamanic work, or to encourage his or her relationship with their spirit helpers.

A shamanic practitioner is engaged in eliciting spirit help that can return him or herself or their clients back to a natural human fullness. Ritual is an extraordinary way to orient and prepare oneself for practices that strongly rely on the maintenance of a practitioner's balanced and sensitive consciousness. With a broadly shamanic aim of rediscovering, gathering and encouraging back the innate template of human fullness, shamanism has a 'toolbox' of very powerful ritual means to prepare for and encourage this.

A shamanic ritual that every practitioner should learn is some sort of a personal style of cleansing. Or if you are working with others, knowing how to assist in their cleansing. 'Cleansings' are grounding, clarifying, and focusing practices that deepen and strengthen whatever work or experiences follow. A personal cleansing consciously seeks to free one from the unwise choices or acts that this body has engaged in over its lifetime so that he or she can step forward as a better, more compassionate, aware, and positive force in the world. When assisting in the cleansing of another, we learn how to remove our ego from our work and step forward with a humble sense of service.

The simplest but by far the most comprehensive way of understanding all of shamanic practice - including that of ritual - is to recognize that it is all simply about the wholeness of the human being. Having a 'full self' is particularly important in realizing health and well-being from a shamanic viewpoint, just as the loss of elements of one's self is the primary cause of ‘unwellness’: a paradigm of healing with a completely different perspective than a contemporary medical model.

There are some shamanic practices that contain a bare minimum of ritual, and others that have much clearer and identified steps. For instance, a practitioner learns to develop his or her awareness in the natural world so that teachings, healing and information can be found. This practice may have very little by the way of specific steps. However, during a soul retrieval where lost or split off parts of a person are found and returned, or in a power animal retrieval where a person is re-empowered by needed or lost parts of their power, the steps are far more clearly specified with respect to the spiritual geography, the process of journeying and procedures of the practitioner, and the methods of returning the soul part or power to the client.

Certainly, there is nothing innately wrong by teaching specific steps in shamanic practice, however, to help keep shamanism from drying out into a religion, one should maintain specific steps only/simply for a couple of general but crucial purposes. One such purpose is safety. It would be reckless for any shamanic practitioner to practice, much less teach, processes that put one in any kind of danger or risk. Therefor any steps we pass forward must leave practitioners, clients, and anyone associated with the practice, safe from harm that could be a consequence of not following such steps. 

Another matter is ethics: we must never pass forward steps that challenge ethical propriety. Of course, every practitioner ultimately takes on his or her own responsibility for determining what is ethical practice and what is not, however, there are some basic matters such as doing things without permission from someone or doing harm to someone or engaging in shamanic practices without training in these things, that we should not subscribe to and never teach.

Ritual is important to learn as you may be called upon to do such things as to open a circle for yourself and others who wish to celebrate life, the Earth, or other Earth-centered or shamanic practice. Of course, there are the variously found but essentially similar rituals found throughout the world for opening circle, sometimes known as 'Calling in the Directions'. I personally applaud practitioners who can develop such a ritual for themselves, and create a lovely, and intense psycho-spiritual 'orienting' practice that engages the full person and prepares one for spiritual work.

Generally, shamanism that has not been 'religion-ified' has very little in the way of a 'you must do it this way' kind of ritualization. Getting a sense of the degree to which a shamanic school or cultural stream has 'givens' - i.e. matters that are already determined and simply there for you to learn such as the nature of reality, particular spirit helpers, ritual steps, or specific phrases or terms - is an effective way of determining whether something is still shamanism, or whether it has in part or in whole, devolved into a religion. Unfortunately, what started as very good shamanic practice has in many instances, decayed into such codification, which then leaves it stiff, unyielding, and incapable of meeting the needs and challenges of different people from different cultural backgrounds or ethnic histories, or for that matter, even meeting the needs of a changing world.

Certainly, there are many ways in which ritual can enter into shamanic life. In fact, I teach people how to develop ritual, because this is something the practitioner needs to know how to do when assisting their community in some healing or divinatory way. The shaman develops ritual in order to meet the needs of a particular person, group, or time. When such rituals become codified, it is not hard to see how they then become increasingly divorced from a changing people, cultures and eras. Human being, if anything, are not stuck in time and place.

We must not let shamanism do the same.