Shamanism and Animism
Animism is our oldest spiritual practice. It is far older than the organised religions. It is the original spiritual practice that the overwhelming majority of our ancestors practised, for tens of thousands of years, in every part of the world where humans have settled.
Animism is not a religion. It has no priests, no hierarchies, no sacred texts, no dogma, no sects or factions, and no sacred buildings. Instead, it is based on direct and personal experience. Animists experience the world, and everything in it, as being alive, conscious and sacred. For animists, everything has a soul – not just humans, or even other animals, but plants, and even the mountains, rivers and the wind too. This makes animism an essentially nature-based spirituality.
In animism there is no spiritual hierarchy. Humans are not seen as “better” or more evolved than other beings. Instead, animism is a spiritual “round table” where all beings are equal and treated with respect. The central concern of animism is then how to live in “right-relationship” and be of service, not just to our fellow humans, but to all our brothers and sisters, human and non-human alike.
Given the number of different and diverse cultures in which animism is found, there is a remarkable consistency in what animists experience and practice. This is because animism is deeply embedded into the human psyche. This makes (re)learning shamanism an easy and familiar experience for many people; a kind of spiritual homecoming.
Shamanism can be thought of as an applied version of animism. As well as experiencing the world as alive and sacred, shamans are people who also have the ability to enter into a particular kind of trance state, leave their bodies and travel the shamanic worlds. This is known as the “shamanic journey”. In a journey, the shamanic practitioner can converse freely with non-human people, receive healing gifts and knowledge and then bring this back to ordinary reality. In this way, as well as healing, a central role of the shaman is to act as an intermediary and help humans live in right-relationship with our other-than-human kin.
Shamanism can be used in many ways, including healing (of self and for others) and for personal and spiritual development. Practising it brings a deep sense of wholeness and a sense of the interconnectedness of all life. It can instil (or, restore) in one a profound sense of connection with nature, something that is lost to many of us in our modern-day, urbanised lifestyles.
Therapeutic Shamanism is about finding ways to make ancient shamanic wisdom relevant to the changing times in which we now live. A key part of this is exploring where shamanism and psychotherapy meet. This happens in many areas, particularly in the more body-aware psychotherapies, where the work often occurs in a somewhat “altered” state of consciousness. In this altered state, people experience their emotions and/or symptoms in metaphorical, mythological, or even archetypal forms. Shamanism provides a set of techniques for entering this realm easily and at will, and so is potentially very useful when working at this level of psychotherapeutic depth.
In both psychotherapy and shamanism, usually a lay person will seek the help of an experienced practitioner (the psychotherapist or the shaman, respectively). In the case of shamanism, usually the shaman “journeys” for the person seeking help, or does a healing on them. In this sense, the power is with the shaman, as the “expert”. In contrast, in (humanistic) psychotherapy and counselling, the therapist works more as a facilitator, empowering the client in exploring their own process of healing.
Therapeutic Shamanism also seeks to work in a way that empowers the “client” as much as possible. The practitioner works with the client with the aim of helping them eventually become their own shamanic guide. Over time, a client is shown how to enter their own shamanic journeys, meet their own shamanic guides and helpers, and find their own answers. The practitioner is there to help the client recover their own spiritual authority, power, integrity and wholeness.
Therapeutic Shamanism draws deeply from the Person-Centred counselling ethos of treating clients with respect, empathy, and honesty, and is deeply rooted in good ethical practice, compassion, integrity, and grounding.
Core to the practice, drawing from body-centred psychotherapy, is a deep understanding of the wisdom of the body and of body symptoms. From shamanism comes a deep sense of resonance with nature, and the aliveness and interconnectedness of all things. From both traditions comes a profound understanding of energy and consciousness.
Therapeutic Shamanism can be used for personal healing, help with life issues, raising self-awareness, personal and spiritual development, and much more.