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What is shamanism?

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Reading time: 8 mins


There is a lot of debate, scholarly and otherwise, about what exactly shamanism is and what it’s not. What is usually agreed upon is that shamanism is a branch of animism.

To understand what is shamanism, then, we first need to look at what animism is.


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. 


For animists, everything has a soul – not just humans or even just other animals, but plants, and even the mountains, rivers and the wind too. This makes animism an essentially nature-based spirituality.

Animists experience the world, and everything in it, as being alive, conscious and sacred (albeit conscious in a way that might be quite different to human consciousness). It is not a belief so much as an experience! 

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.


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 a “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 it an easy and familiar experience for many people, a kind of spiritual homecoming.


An applied version of animism. 

Shamanism is essentially a practical application of animist beliefs. It is a highly practical and accessible form of spirituality. You don’t have to believe anything or take anything on faith. Instead, it is a path of direct, personal experience.⁠

It 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 has been lost to many of us in our modern-day, urbanised lifestyles


As well as experiencing the world as alive and sacred, as other animists do, 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 us humans live in right-relationship with our other-than-human kin.


Let’s do some shamanic math! If you accept the history of human evolution, modern humans (Homo sapiens) are around 200,000 years old as a species. Now, as a round figure, let’s say that in a hunter-gatherer society, you would have had children by the time you were aged twenty. That means you have around about 10,000 generations of human ancestors.⁠

Now, taking another round figure, let us say that we stopped practising animism and shamanism around 2,000 years ago. That means it is only the last 100 generations of your ancestors who were not shamanic!⁠

If each generation is represented by 1 person, and we were to put them in a line 1 metre apart from one another, we would have a line of 10,000 people almost 10 kilometres long! In this line, only 100 metres would be ancestors that didn’t practice shamanism.⁠

Put another way, that is a staggering 99% of your human ancestors were animists who lived and breathed shamanism.⁠



Therapeutic Shamanism is a branch of Core Shamanism, the work of anthropologist and shamanic practitioner Michael Harner.⁠

As he studied shamanic cultures, Harner realised that underneath the cultural trappings of a particular tribe’s shamanic practice, there is a series of core beliefs and practices that are essentially common to all shamanic cultures. These  form the basis of what Harner called “core shamanism”, and wrote about in his seminal book “The Way of the Shaman”.⁠

As such, core shamanism (and therapeutic shamanism) is not rooted in any one particular culture or geographic region of the world. Instead, it is a set of practices that are common and nearly universal in terms of shamanic practice worldwide (i.e. not specific to particular culture).⁠ They are the birthright of all human beings. Whereas certain practices and beliefs may belong to particular cultures, shamanism as a whole cannot be claimed by any culture. 


For around 200,000 years, humans lived as hunter-gatherer tribes, and as far as we know there has not been a single hunter-gatherer tribe in the history of the human race that did not practise shamanism (in the broad sense of the word). Then, 6,000 years ago, we not only turned away from shamanism, we waged a war upon it! The reasons for that requires a separate discussion. What is crucial to understand here though is, as we witness the recent resurgence and growth of interest in shamanism, shamanism is re-emerging into a very different world from the one it thrived in before.

therapeutic shamanism
Emergence of the Under-world

As we turned away from shamanism, in order to fit into our new, domesticated, tamed, complex modern society, we had to disown and repress huge parts of our psyche and true nature, in order to fit in. In doing this, we created a whole new realm – the under-world. This created an enormous sea of repressed material, what Jungians and other psychotherapists might understand as the personal and collective unconscious. This is not an issue traditional shamanism had to deal with. It is though where psychotherapy can help.


Just as shamanism is specifically designed and equipped to deal with problems of soul-loss and power-loss, psychotherapy (or at least any deep psychotherapy) is specifically designed and equipped to deal with the issue of the underworld. It provides a set of specialist tools and knowledge to deal with issues involved in healing and developing a healthy middle-world self and in finding a healthy way to live in modern society.

In losing shamanism and animism, we lost our way. We need it back. Indeed, our very survival, and those of our fellow species, may well depend on it.


Shamanism and psychotherapy meet 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, a layperson might seek the help of an experienced practitioner (the psychotherapist or the shaman, respectively).

In the case of traditional shamanism, usually the shaman “journeys” for the person seeking help, or does healing on them in some other way. In this sense, the power is with the shaman, as the “expert”.

By contrast, in (humanistic) psychotherapy and counselling, the therapist works more as a facilitator, empowering the client to explore 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.

In this way, in Therapeutic Shamanism, a practitioner is there to help the client recover their own spiritual authority, power, integrity and wholeness.

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.


In founding Core Shamanism, Michael Harner suggested, as a mark of respect, reserving the term “shaman” for people in indigenous cultures who lived and breathed shamanism, and instead of using the term “shamanic practitioner” for modern “Westerners” practising core shamanism.⁠ 

I agree, so out of respect, I do not call myself a shaman. Instead, I am a shamanic practitioner. You can read more about the reasons for this choice in the embedded post below.


If you are ready to learn more about shamanism and shamanic journeying, our First Steps course will equip you with everything you need to know to start, including:

  • What is shamanism?
  • The history of shamanism and animism
  • How to do a shamanic journey (a step-by-step process)
  • How to do Power Animal retrieval journey and find your own Power Animal
  • Why we nearly lost shamanism, why we need it back and how psychotherapy fits in the process
  • The basics of how to do shamanic healing for other people
  • … and more.

Reading time: 8 mins

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