Thursday, 10 February 2011

The 'S Word'

So, do you think your a shaman?  If so - why?

Shaman is a funny old word - if we do shamanic things, do we call ourselves one or not?

I guess I had better define terms hadn't I, although that might open up a whole other can of worms in it's own right, because what I think a shaman is may not be what you think a shaman is.

The word 'shaman' has become very trendy in Western culture over the last few years - terms like 'shamanic reiki' (what on earth is that?) are advertised in the new-age scene, and shamanic 'this that and the other' are bandied about here, there and everywhere on radio and TV and in magazines and books. It is a term I have heard used to describe artists, writers, lots of new-age bunkum and just about anything else where the word can get easily slipped into. 'Shamanic cornflakes' - the next great breakfast trend.

I'm pretty sure most people reading this know where the word comes from - but just in case!

The word shaman comes from Siberia - it's a word in the Tungus language meaning to get excited and agitated and heated up. It came to the West via Russia in the 19th century and is used to describe the ecstatic healers and visionaries of the people, who act as communicators between the world of humans and - in the broadest sense - the world of the spirits.

A Tungus shaman - photo taken in early C20th

I guess, for me, the key bit that defines a shaman is that they are ecstatic - which means that they are outside of themselves - they go outside of themselves, and their spirits fly off to the spirit worlds...  if it does not involve visiting the spirit world, then in the true sense of the world it's not really shamanism.

When I first started working with anything you could term close to shamanism - back in the dark ages before blogs, or even the internet, I became involved in Medicine Wheel.

Medicine wheel is a set of teachings based on those of the Native Americans. Some of the stuff that is taught is traditional and some of it is not. Unless you take on a formal apprenticeship with a Native teacher, it generally tends to be a mish-mash of different tribal traditions, teachings and ceremonies, often with a bit of general animistic philosophy from other traditions thrown in for good measure.

I'm not knocking this, a little of it maybe new age nonsense, but most of it is good useful teachings that are going to help you come to terms with yourself, your relatives (and I don't just mean the two-legged ones) and your existence on the planet.

Not a shaman (Wallace Black Elk - Lakota medicine person)

But if you want to be really strict about it, medicine wheel is not shamanism, and if I wanted to be really contentious I'd say that shamans don't exist in traditional Native American culture - a viewpoint which I know is shared by many Native Americans who feel Western 'wannabe' culture has tried to steal their spirituality.

As an aside here, I think medicine wheel teachings are a wonderful add-on to the core shamanism taught in the West - people who study with the Horwitz or Harner schools of shamanism would gain a great deal by doing some medicine wheel and learning some ceremonies and the deep structure of working with spirit in the everyday world... but that's another blog.

Not a shaman

So you've done some workshops, and you even journey!

You put on your drumming CD and headphones, or your friends drum for you, or maybe you even drum for yourself, and you go down the rabbit hole, or up through the smoke hole, or through the mirror - how ever you get to the other worlds - and you go off to meet up with your spirits and you do what you do on your shamanic journey.

Does that make you a shaman?

Personally, I have always said no it does not.

Being a shaman is a biggy, it's a commitment to helping your people and doing what your spirits tell you to do - even if you don't want to do it. It is not a a walk in the park, which is why a lot of traditional shamans don't want to be shamans (when spirit knocks a wise man runs).

But there maybe a downside to not labeling ourselves as shamans - we may be not taking our power, and that is as unhealthy as being full of 'hey everyone I'm a shaman - look at me!'

Two shamans (Nepalese)

I watched two documentary films last night.

The first was a film about the earliest people in Britain, thousands of years ago, and it included some of the evidence archaeologists have which show signs of there spirituality. Chances are they were shamanic - I would say the chances are one of your ancestors was a shaman - or at least performed practices that were pretty damn shamanic.

The other was a German film of shamans performing ceremonies in Mongolia (Vom Blaurn Himmel). The shamans were honoured for who they were and accepted in the community as shamans. And they thought of themselves as shamans too - and in so doing they took their power and 'were' shamans.

A still from the film Vom Blaurn Himmel

My rule of thumb has always been 'I don't call myself a shaman' (and I generally feel wary of anyone I meet who says they are!)

I do say that I shamanise - which is of course true - because when I pop down the rabbit hole to do a healing or something what else am I doing if not acting as a shaman - ie shamanising.

If people call me a shaman (which some people do sometimes) I accept and generally don't argue with them, because that is what they think I am, but I don't claim the term myself. And yet (between you, me and the lamp post) I know I have the role of shaman sometimes, and when I am doing shamanic work I am being - at least for that time - a shaman (but that is strictly between you and me - cos I didn't say it - OK!)

I was talking to a Buryat woman shaman (an udagan) about all this sometime ago - and she was most instant that we should call ourselves shamans (only as I am a man she used her peoples word for a male shaman which is kam)

Buryat kam (male shaman) - Southern Siberia
She said, "if you were at an accident and you knew first-aid or were a doctor you would say "let me through I know first aid," or |let me through I am a doctor"so when people need why not say "I am a kam let me see what I can do?""

I can certainly see her point of view, and talking to her like that made me really think. Maybe it is my natural British reserve that baulks at the thought of claiming my kam-ness, maybe it is also out of respect for all the shamans who put their lives on the line for their people and 'give-away' so much so that they can be healers. I am always reminded of the Lakota holyman Frank Fools Crow who used to say "anyone can do the things I do if they lead the life I live!"

Maybe also it is because I feel it opens the gates to all those people who do two weekend workshops and think they are now 'shamans.' (I hope you heard the trumpet fanfare that went with the 'S' word just then)

But then perhaps it's like this... I own several Apple Macs, and I have enough technical skill to put new ink cartridges in the printer, and am pretty good at sorting out technical bits with the OS too.

If I was really moved I could - I am sure - get to grips with putting an extra RAM chip into it.

Most of us could do that much technical stuff with our computers - just like we all can do at least basic shamanic practice - minimal shamanic maintenance if you like.

But, some people really feel at home with computers, and they tweak here and there left right and centre - I'm pretty much like that with my Macs, but I know my limits - if it fails to wake up one morning I do all I can and then get an expert in (and pay them).

Maybe a shaman - but it refuses to answer directly
Thats just the same with shamanism really, everyone could do the very basics (the equivalent of changing the ink cartridge), and some people know enough to do more than the basics and can help out their neighbours and friends with their difficulties, and other people are the experts you call in when you really need them (and you pay them).

Just cos you can change your ink cartridge or un-install a bit of software that gave your computer tummy ache does not make you a computer technician!

I don't suppose I'll ever really balance out the thing about calling myself a shaman - I do shamanic work for sure, and, as I said, if other people call me a shaman that's up to them.

But I know one thing - I would not take my Mac to anyone who had only attended a couple of weekends on computer repairs - what ever the bit of paper the trainer had given them at the end of the course said they now were.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Sunday Shamanism

There is a slightly derogatory term - used sometimes to describe hobby artists - by those who take their art more seriously, this term being 'Sunday painter.'
   To me this always conjures up a picture of someone sitting to a kitchen table, painting away for a few hours after the traditional Sunday roast has been consumed and the washing up's been done -
and before a late Sunday afternoon cup of tea and slice of cake in front of the fire, and a settled Sunday evening of television.
   I am sure however that - if I think about it - this is a rather fanciful view, as I suppose I am a 'Sunday painter' myself, only getting my brushes out now and again when time permits - although I don't personally possess a kitchen table on which to practice. Despite the lack of a large body of completed artwork, I would still describe myself as an artist - albeit not one who earns their daily crust from the toil of the paintbrush.

   So, what about the Sunday shaman? Does such a being exist, or is it in fact impossible to be anything else?

   I have a bit of a problem with the workshop scene that has grown up in the West around shamanism (or any other spiritual-ism come to that). My problem is this, people often step out of their lives to attend the workshop, and then step out of the workshop and step back into their lives again - and often never the twain shall meet.
    Now, please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying people should not go on workshops. I have done hundreds of them myself over the decades - on medicine wheel, shamanism and Buddhism, and even more, if I add on all the ones I attended on psychotherapy, and I have gained huge amounts of knowledge and practices from them. I have never once gone off to sit at the feet of some ancient shaman in a tar-paper shack in the backwoods of some far away country and apprenticed myself to them, sitting at their feet for months on end, soaking up their wisdom.
   So, if I have attended so many workshops and got so much from them, why on earth would I say I have a problem with them?

   A Sunday painter is a hobby painter rather than a professional one, they don't get up each day and head to their studio to work away on their art, and yet art is generally central to their lives, often their homes are filled with work by other artists and books on art, and their friends are often other 'Sunday painters.' Art is their passion - a major reason for existence.
   Can the same be said for many who step into the plethora of shamanic workshops out there? How is it that it is often so difficult to maintain a shamanic practice in modern society, how do we, as people living in a society filled with 'dead matter thinking' - as one of my medicine teachers aptly put it, maintain our connection to the wider perception we dibble our toes in when we go on workshops - once we have returned home again?

   When I first met medicine wheel teachings, some 25 years ago now, I came back from (yes you've guessed it) the workshop, with my eyes spinning and my head doing cartwheels. Once home I said to my beloved "I think my life has just changed" and I knew deep down inside I had to make it a main thing in my life.
  I've been lucky - shamanism in it's many forms is my day job, although a lot of that day job revolves around the admin of shamanism, such as magazine subscription databases and the packing up of magazines to post out  - and believe me a shamanic database is not any different to a none shamanic one at the end of the day - nor is shamanic post.

   But despite shamanism being my day job - I am not a full time shamanic practitioner - I'm a Sunday shaman. I generally do healing and other shamanic work for people in the evenings and do my own practice then also.
   And that is really the way it has always been; just about all the medicine people and shamans I have worked with spend their days living their lives, doing what they do, often holding down other jobs, or looking after their families - doing the stuff of life. But they also have the medicine, or shamanism, weaving through their lives like a red thread that holds it all together - like a Sunday painter their art is central to their lives.

   I suppose another reason I am distrustful of workshops is that they can foster the appearance that the workshop leader is a shamanic professional. We all, as human beings, have a propensity to put professionals on pedestals, and often defer to them accordingly (or spend our lives trying to knock them off). In so doing, we give up our own power.
   Certainly a professional workshop leader should have good group work and communication skills, so they can lead the people in their circle to the shift in perception needed to take on the shamanic reality they are trying to transmit - but that does not make them a professional shamanic practitioner, it just makes them a professional communicator, like I am often a professional database facilitator.
   I think it is too easy for people attending workshops to feel 'unprofessional' in their shamanic practice, as if they are only visitors to the shamanic world the workshop leader inhabits all the time - and so they often only feel, at best like 'Sunday shamans,' hobby shamanic practitioners - and they step out of this 'professional world' back into the 'normal world' once again at the end of the workshop.
   But in reality, the 'normal world' is where the power is - the professional shaman is an oxymoron, and shamanism belongs on the kitchen table, not in a fancy workshop venue.

   With artists, I guess you could say a professional one is one who earns their daily crust from their art; but beyond the earning, what makes them true artists is the courage they show in following their art where ever it takes them, and the passion they feel for their art as it fills their lives.
   Sunday painters have their own degree of courage and passion - and sometimes their work is mediocre and sometimes it is resplendent - but they do it because they too have their share of courage and passion and follow it to the best of their ability.

   So I encourage us all to be Sunday shamans, and bring the passion we feel for shamanic practice into our lives, and fill our lives with that passion so we eat and drink it. We need to put it on the kitchen table where it belongs, and although we can't all be shamanic Picasso's, if we feed it - it will feed us.


Saturday, 22 January 2011

In the beginning was the word.....

..... and the word was with Blog, and the word was Blog!

In 1993 my partner in crime Faith Nolton (Jan Morgan Wood) created Sacred Hoop Magazine, and by hook or by crook now, some eighteen years later, we still - four times a year - put out an issue and send it out to readers all over the world.
   Sacred Hoop is a way of life for us, we measure the seasons of the year by solstices, equinoxes and issues, and we do it because the shamanic understanding of the world presented on it's pages is how we live our lives.
   So, this will be a blog about how I practice shamanism, and about how we put the Sacred Hoop magazine together, and also about my reflections on aspects of shamanism and sacred creativity as well.
   So I hope you enjoy the ramblings of an editor's mind that will occur in these entries as the blog unfolds