Shamanism has been practiced by various indigenous peoples around the world for thousands of years. There is no agreed definition of the word, but it is especially associated with the native peoples of Siberia in northern Asia. The word itself is an anthropological term that was first associated with the ancient magical religions of the Turks, Mongols, Tungusic, and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. After observing similar religious ecstasy practices in other parts of Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the Americas, it became used in a broad way to describe these unrelated traditions.
While each culture has its own unique practices, there are underlying cross-cultural similarities. These cross-cultural practices are the foundation of core shamanism that was made popular by Michael Harner. Shamanism is a rightly contested word that has become an umbrella term to describe all manner of spiritual new-age practices. I wholeheartedly agree it is often misused and used inappropriately. The word sells, this is a sad reflection of the consumerist Western world we live. I have struggled with my own usage of the word, so I decided to try to explain my thoughts and feelings on the subject.
Firstly, I believe that most people in the West who think they are practicing shamanism, are in fact practicing a form of animism. This is because both share similar beliefs and some practices such as nature and ancestral veneration. For me, it is simple. Everyone can practice animism BUT not everyone can be a shaman. Here is my why......
Shamans are indigenous spirit intermediaries who work with nature, elemental, and ancestral spirits for the benefit of their community. They can alter their state of consciousness. To travel in a trance state between the world of man and spirit, to divine information and heal. They have prophetic visions, interpret dreams, read omens, fight malevolent spirits, and escort the dead to the afterlife. They are chosen by the spirits. Not someone who chooses to work with the spirits. It is a path that is often hereditary but not always so. It is not a life that any person would choose to live, for classic initiations can result in death or madness. If a person accepts this path, the initiate undergoes rigorous training by an elder shaman in their indigenous ways. This training can last for many years to ensure they have the experience necessary to work with the spirits for the benefit of their community. The title of a shaman is one that is given based on their ability. In my opinion, NO one should claim this title. This is disrespectful.
SHAMANIC PRACTITIONERS This doesn't mean that people who were born into other cultures cannot be gifted seers, soul midwives, or healers. For the invisible world of spirits is all around us. Sometimes people are born with natural spiritual abilities. As in traditional initiations, some also gain these abilities through illness or near-death experiences. They become what is often referred to as the 'wounded healer'. Shamanism is a path of direct revelation, where the spirits are the teachers, but experienced human teachers are also important.
I trained in cross-cultural shamanism over several years in a bid to understand my own experiences. First as a shamanic practitioner with Stephen Mulhearn and then as a shamanic teacher with the highly respected Sandra Ingerman. I also trained as a Firewalk and Spiritual Leader with the mother of Firewalking Peggy Dylan. I took my Sweat Lodge training with David Wendl-Berry but felt that it was wrong for someone who did not come from a First Nations culture to pour a lodge and use their medicine ways, so I never did.
Although these were powerful practices and I learned a lot, I still felt there was something lacking in the core training. As someone with a lifelong interest in Scottish folklore, stories, and customs. This lacking was the connection to my own culture's ancient traditions. Hence, I began to weave these into my teachings, aided by a spirit I call 'old woman from the otherworld' and it was then that I became an apprentice to the spirit of a Bean Feasa (wise woman).