Shamanista, mama, elder, metastatic cancer survivor, SoulCollage® facilitator, Sagittarian in the Ophiuchus window, snake clan, scar clan, and a whole lotta other labels that don’t really contain me.
Shamanic initiation is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of the shamanic path. Information on it is either closely guarded, or accounts of it are so individualized that it’s difficult to translate them to one’s personal experience. Many people are left wondering if they’ve experienced shamanic initiation and may not have a clear understanding of what initiation is. This is a very personal experience and can be difficult to disentangle from the narrative of over-culture in contemporary societies. But let me start by offering ideas about what initiation is in general. While this offering is not intended to outline specific symptoms or indications of initiation- there are plenty of articles that will offer that- it will help clarify shamanic initiation from a contemporary and soul science point of view.
The English definition of the word “initiation”:
The second definition is obviously broader and more applicable to initiation as a whole. As the definition implies, when one goes through an initiation they are at the starting point of something. In other words, it’s marked by a single event, but that event is not containing the entirety of the initiation process. It’s just the beginning, in the same way the gun shot signifies the start of the race. This second definition, which is the one we will be working with in this article, is not inconsistent with the first definition, which suggests that initiation can be marked by a ritual or ceremonious acknowledgement. Although, let there be no confusion- shamanism is in no way a “secret society.” While shamans are said to have a certain soul shape, the shamanic initiations are not intended in the same way an initiation into a secret society is intended. However, the Western lineage of shamanism may very well be traced through the 'mystery schools', and these often do have a "secret society" personna to them. But this has more to do with the hijacking and suppression of the shamanic impulse, and is not an inherent aspect of shamanism itself. This brings me to the very point which makes shamanic initiation different. Shamanic initiation is usually considered to be entirely controlled by the Spirits. That is, there is nothing external that can be facilitated to bring about the deep work of initiation. This is hard to understand and can be frustrating if the initiate is feeling the shamanic impulse in a culture that is self-determined and lacks the role and process for shamanizing. In traditional archaic shamanic cultures it is generally the village or tribe that agrees on who the next shaman will be. This may be marked by a major event or specific signs that are experienced by the tribe. Because Westernized cultures are not tribal in orientation, nor are they animistic, shamanic initiation is rarely identified as such. But even in traditional shamanic cultures the initiatory event is followed by the individual apprenticing under the elder shaman. Often this initiation process lasts decades, and the elder shaman puts the initiate through many rigorous and dangerous tests before the initiate ‘graduates’ into the fully embodied role of shaman.
Because the clearly defined role of shaman has been suppressed in contemporary cultures, we lack the process and guided oversight of elders. This doesn’t mean the shamanic impulse can’t or doesn’t exist in contemporary cultures- the shamanic impulse is universal, and shamanism itself is a universal archetype! But it does mean that shamanic initiates in contemporary societies can be like untethered astronauts, floating about and trying to latch onto anything that remotely looks and feels like shamanism, and/or they turn to other cultures that have strong shamanic lineages.
Initiation as Process
I can't emphasize enough- in understanding shamanic initiation it’s important to acknowledge that initiation as a whole is an ongoing process. It’s generally not a one-time event that one experiences and then never experiences again. It can be re-experienced over and over, and absolutely can come in stages. A shaman will undergo several, if not hundreds of initiations in his/her life. This is especially relevant if we consider the second definition- that initiation is the action or beginning of something. In this way the shaman is practically continuously undergoing initiation. It’s a life-work and actually an aspect of the shamanic expression itself. It means that the shaman is constantly undergoing transformation, constantly learning. These initiations can be related to specific ways the shaman serves. So there can be initiation into particular local plant medicines, initiations into death, into psychopomp work, into weather and environmental manipulations. These mini-initiations are limitless. But the central shamanic initiation is generally one large, over-arching process that had a set beginning (perhaps even birth), and continues on throughout the shaman’s life.
Initiation as Ritual
The first dictionary definition of initiation offers insight into the ritualistic nature of initiation. Rituals and ceremonies are externalized events, touch-points of sorts. They can signify the internal work that has or will take place, and in some ways they can serve as initiations themselves. But shamanic initiation in contemporary cultures is rarely marked by ceremony or ritual, and even in cultures where it is it remains an elusive process, the bulk of which occurs within the psyche of the individual being initiated. In other words, generally ritual and ceremony are used as an external signifier of a process that has already began internally, particularly in Westernized cultures, but sometimes ceremony or ritual itself can be the initiatory set-off. One example of this would be the non-indigenous exposure to a local indigenous ceremony or ritual. The Westerner who travels to Peru to partake of the plant Spirit medicine of ayahuasca is experiencing a type of shamanic initiation. This doesn’t make them a shaman, as again, initiation is a long and arduous process, fraught with lots of dangers. But it does sling-shot them into the Spirit realm and potentially exposes them to all the types of Beings that are there. This Spirit realm is the realm of shamans, worldwide. But becoming adept at working within that realm and then offering those services to others is a process. Most Westerners who partake of ayahuasca will not see the initiation through to become fully embodied shamans.
But it’s important to understand that the ritual or ceremony itself just serves as the touch-point to jump-start the initiation process or to express a process that’s already begun. The real work of the initiatory event always occurs within the individual, requiring them to transmute the experience into practical experience and wisdom. If the individual is fortunate they have an elder to come out to and bounce off of. Elders ground the initiatory experience, act as guides and mentors, provide context and application, and offer invaluable discernment and accountability. This is imperative to keeping one out of sorcery and helping the initiate develop finely honed skills and knowledge.
Cultures will have specific ceremonies and rituals that lend themselves to the initiatory process. Nearly all of us can identify with Joseph Cambell’s journey of the hero, and with the death and resurrection stage in the journey. In “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth”, currently streaming on Netflix, Campbell says, “He (the hero) evolves as the culture evolves” (E1). The same can be said of the shamanic expression. While the impulse and the archetype are both universal, the unique expression will vary depending on the individual and their personality and experiences, but also on the culture they are within. Specific techniques and context will be entirely culturally-driven and will be based mostly on the lineages and mythos of the specific culture. So each shamanic culture will have its own prescribed beliefs and methods of identifying and connecting with initiation. It’s especially important to be aware that initiations often share a universal theme which also transcends culture, but that the actual external aspects will be entirely culturally prescribed. In many shamanic cultures the people are relatively untouched by modern complexities. And so in indigenous cultures that are still existing in the deep Amazonian jungles, for example, initiation is going to be very different than it will be in a complex North American society. In North America and other contemporary urban cultures initiation is organic and Spirit-driven, but the ceremonial/ritualistic aspects of it are often absent, and there is usually a lack of cultural context for the initiation process and for proper elderhood. This may be for two reasons. One is that these contemporary cultures often don’t have a strong shamanic foundation or connection, and so they tend to fail at acknowledging initiations as being specifically shamanic, and secondly the rituals aren't required in order for a shamanistic individual to be initiated. The Spirits find a way irregardless of us. It can seem almost blasphemous to make such a claim when some expressions of archaic shamanism are strongly tied to deep lineages of ritualized initiation processes. But to make this point clearer, consider that peoples living in tribal cultures often live communally, are subsisting or are living very minimally, live in relative harmony with and are intimate with the ecosystem, and have routinized and simplistic lives. The shared resources and responsibilities potentially lend to far fewer individual stressors. In contemporary, technology-driven, post-industrial cultures people are living isolated and extremely complex lives, where they are continually bombarded by external stimuli and are completely disconnected from their local natural resources. And so for people in remote, tribal cultures the initiatory process can tend to be more contrived, more externally ritualized, based on long-standing tradition, whereas in modern cultures it tends to happen through just living in the complex society. For example, the urban shaman may experience the death initiation through a literal experience of surviving a catastrophic car accident, whereas in the jungle the initiate may be buried alive and required to remain buried for an extended period while he breathes through a small tube from his mouth to the Earth’s surface.
In shamanic cosmology, regardless of culture, the shaman knows that it is the Spirits who call and train the shamanic initiates. So even in cultures with intact and strongly expressed lineage and tradition, it is still considered the work of the Spirits. This is essentially no different in contemporary shamanic expressions. The initiatory themes are universal, but the manifestation is not. Which brings to the discussion this idea of archaic/traditional shamanism and the stereotype often perpetuated from it. Until people in contemporary cultures can make peace with the fact that modern shamanism not only does not, but should not be a carbon-copy of archaic shamanism, the shamanic impulse will continue to be suppressed and the initiatory experience repressed and derailed in these cultures.
THE Shamanic Initiation
I know I said there may be multiple initiations, and that initiation is an ongoing process with stages, but there is a single shamanic initiation which serves to place the individual on the shamanic path. This granddaddy of all initiations is the death and resurrection initiation, and it is what defines shamanism. In fact, it is said to be the core aspect of the shamanic archetype. One cannot make claim to be a shaman and not have endured the death and resurrection initiation. But, as indicated this initiation can be both internal and external- marked by an external event that had significant consequence and set-off an internal process for the individual. Many people have experienced “Ego death”, brought about by various external circumstances. Joseph Campbell with his seminal work in A Hero With A Thousand Faces outlines the stages of the Hero’s Journey and states of the passage through the threshold, “this popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that that passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. But here, instead of passing outward beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward to be born again.”
So this theme of death and resurrection is universal and is experienced by most humans. It is a major event of the individuation process. But how it is unique to shamanism may be found in the individual calling, or ‘drafting’ the shamanic individual experiences. To understand this with more clarity it might help to turn to the work of Andrew Camargo, founder of the School of Modern Soul Science, which The Urban Shaman has interviewed twice thus far. Building on the work of Carl Jung and Rudolf Steiner, Camargo has fleshed-out the universal nature of the shamanic archetype into distinct facets in a similar way that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator represents distinct personality types. The Shamanic Archetype Workbook helps individuals identify within themselves specific facets or aspects of the shamanic archetype that resonate with their experiences and personality expressions. Central to Camargo’s concept of the shamanic archetype is the death and resurrection aspect. In other words, all shamanic initiations involve this event. But how one specifically rises from the ashes will be decidedly shamanic, and will also have nuanced variations depending on how one identifies and expresses the constellation of the various facets of the shamanic archetype.
What makes shamanic initiation different than other types of initiation, which may also involve the death and resurrection process, is that the shamanic skill-set requires a well developed grouping of shamanic ‘gifts.’ But most of these gifts aren’t freely given- they have to be earned. And so a shamanic initiation can look like a literal brush with death, like enduring severe trauma, like having a major accident or suffering a serious illness or disease. It can look like a psychotic break. This is primarily because the role of the shaman is to serve the community as a spiritual mediator between the Spirit world and the material world. This requires the shaman to have one foot in the Spirit realm, and one foot in the material, and the highly tuned skill-set required to be in that role requires a rigorous initiation. In fact, each facet of the shamanic archetype the shaman expresses will have likely resulted from it’s own initiatory process. For example, I identify most with the Wounded Healer and the Initiated Into Darkness facets of the archetype. These each had overlapping but separate initiation processes, and the initiations for those facets involved severe early-childhood traumas. That caused an immediate death- a death of my innocence, death of my unencumbered sense of myself. It catapulted me into the Spirit realm, and in order to survive in the physical I had to develop finely honed skills. It took me decades to do the work of transmuting that into an act of service- of coming into service as a shamanic practitioner.
While some experience the death and resurrection as a single catastrophic event, others may actually experience it as a slow decaying. Bite-sized morsels of death. For these people the death experience is what I call “snake medicine.” It’s the cyclical experience of death and rebirth. And some people can experience both- the single catastrophic event and the recurring smaller events that erode away and alchemize the Ego. But either way, it is usually external events that are beyond a person’s conscious control, and in this way shamans are said to be “chosen by the Spirits.” While indigenous shamanic traditions often have a system whereby the person is declared a shamanic individual, either based on lineage or on some external sign or event, even those signs or events themselves are things out of the conscious control (self-will) of those who experience them. In such a culture, a premature birth, a birth defect, some type of anomalous event, a brush with death, etc. can all indicate that a particular individual within the community is to begin apprenticeship with the elder shaman.
But if we follow Joseph Campbell’s map for the individuation process, while the process itself is universal and is similar to shamanic initiation, it doesn’t clearly differentiate individuation from shamanic initiation. Nearly all humans will go through an individuation process within their lifetimes, but obviously not all will go through shamanic initiation. So there are similarities, but there also must be clarity about the distinction.
It may help to conceptualize initiation on a continuum, with the micro-Ego deaths we all experience on one end of the continuum, the individuation process being in the middle, and shamanic initiation being on the other end of the continuum. What distinctly distinguishes shamanic initiation from individuation is that shamanic initiation occurs within shamanic individuals, and in shamanic initiation the person is literally manifesting the stages of the Hero’s Journey. In this way the stages move beyond just psychological constructs and experiences of the psyche, but occur in a mystical order that is quite literal. In other words, a shaman will literally undergo one or more dismemberments and deaths.
The Problem With Joseph Campbell
I know I’ve used Joseph Campbell’s map for the Hero’s Journey to parallel with the shamanic initiation. It is an unapologetically Western approach to quantify initiation, taking it out of the realm of mystery and putting it in the more rational realm of psychology. While in academic realms psychology is a pseudo-science that relies heavily on quasi-experimental designs, in the realm of spirituality it is decidedly atheistic, studying spirituality only through the lens of the human psyche. People like Carl Jung have offered a psychospiritual paradigm that has seemed to lean psychology towards spirituality in a way that many modern people find attractive. But the problem is this has led to the psychologizing of things that have historically been left to the realm of Spirit. This is the burden for the contemporary individual experiencing the shamanic impulse within a Westernized culture. A hodge-podge mash of psychological theory, New Age spirituality, and mythos from various traditions is what we’re left to sift through in trying to channel the shamanic impulse and define shamanic practice in modern (rational materialist) cultures.
Joseph Campbell did a lot in offering us a map which may serve as a comforting guidepost in our initiatory journeys. But Campbell, following the footsteps of Jung, and like many who have, was a solipsist. In A Hero With a Thousand Faces he wrote, “Mythology, in other words, is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology.” And so in Campbell’s world a shaman’s initiation is not ‘real’ in the literal sense, but a mere projection of the psyche. The interaction with Spirits in a Campbellian paradigm is nothing more than interactions with projected mythological themes and personas from the individual’s own psychological constructs and the collective unconscious. In this way the Spirit realm is not seen as an actual place, but as an extension of the imagination, always bound by the psyche, and always occurring within. Campbell's 'Unknown World' or 'Special World' is not a literal Spirit realm, but an interior psychological landscape.
This is wholly inconsistent with shamanism, and a Westernized version of shamanism cannot survive if it allows itself to grow from solipsistic roots. But this is a worthy discussion for another article- perhaps one that focuses on the high level of initiation required to truly do the work of a shaman. Because we can't deny that psychological projections can and do occur, but the shaman must know what is a projected thought form and what is legitimate interactions with Spirits.
Shamanic Individuals and Shamans
Getting back to initiation and specifically shamanic initiation, it’s important to understand that shamanism originates at it's core from a universal archetype, but also that this archetype narrows down into a specific manifestation. In a recent interview with Andrew Camargo, he made an important distinction between shamanic individuals and shamans. Because the archetype is universal, facets of it can be experienced and perceived in many people. And some of these people may experience the shamanic impulse- a deep compulsion to shamanize. But we must be clear when we’re talking about shamanic initiation. Not all who experience initiation follow the path into fully embodied shamanic service. Shamanism is a role, a very specific ‘job’- it’s not a religion, a belief, a spiritual system (apart from animism or from the spiritual culture within which the impulse is being expressed). In archaic shamanistic cultures the entire culture is animistic, and so this distinction between shamanism and animism is also important in talking about initiation, as many people identify with animism as a spiritual system, and confuse that with the role of shaman. This is most obvious in North America when people confuse shamanism with the spirituality of the First Peoples. And so the distinction must be made between the archetype and all its’ characteristics as they express through individuals and the actual role of service to the community that the shaman fulfills. Many are called, few are chosen. I offer this not in arrogant elitism, but in prudence and with caution. Shamanic initiation is a harrowing and dangerous process, and many do not make it.
Just as initiation is culturally-bound, so too is the manifestation of aborted or derailed initiation. In archaic shamanic cultures a failed initiation can literally result in death. Perhaps the initiate is sent into the jungle to live for a year with no access to community for food, shelter, or water. Left to fend for himself, the initiate may succumb to starvation, dehydration, infection, attack by large predatory animals, etc. Because initiation, regardless of culture, is a passing through the threshold, it’s meant to strip away, to test one’s limits, to drag them into the abyss and/or into the Spirit world, where they must find their way out, learn to work with Spirits, and bring back needed information. And some people simply don’t emerge or can’t deal with the demands of walking in two worlds.
In An Encyclopedia of Shamanism, Volume 2, by Christina Pratt, “shaman sickness” or “initiatory illness” is characterized as: “The specific physical and/or mental illness that occurs when spirit chooses a new shamanic candidate and possesses the candidate or takes his or her soul into the spirit world. The sickness does not respond to normal treatment, nor does it progress like a normal illness. It may advance and retreat without reason and defy our understanding of how similar symptoms normally function in the body. This illness is cured only when the one stricken surrenders to the will of spirit, faces his or her fear of death, and cures his or her own madness or illness. The individual gains shamanic power in the process by finding meaning in the process and curing herself. As a result of this passage the individual can work with the fears and madness in others having now crossed that emotional and psychological territory within herself.”
So failed initiation is by definition being stuck in or not finding the ability to heal oneself of the sickness.
In Westernized cultures it’s not uncommon to see shamanistic individuals fail the initiatory process and fall into homelessness, drug addiction, alcoholism, mood disorders, suicidality, and/or psychosis. And again, we must be clear that initiates are not shamans- they are shamanistic individuals who have the potential to emerge as shamans. A well-known contemporary shamanistic individual who comes to mind is Jim Morrison. I know I run the risk of being discredited for suggesting that Jim Morrison is a modern Western shamanic individual, and that it’s hard to imagine if Jim Morrison had not failed in his initiatory process that he might have become a shaman, but I would suggest that this is largely because we hold the archaic stereotype of shamanism too closely.
If the shaman is, as Joseph Campbell claims, the mystic, the artist, then we don’t have to look far into contemporary cultures to see.
Although, again I think it’s important to make the distinction between shamanistic individuals and shamans. I’m not personally convinced that artists who have shamanistic facets and experience the impulse are fully-embodied shamans. I would think that if Robert Plant were a shaman his manifestation of that might look different than being a singer/songwriter. But there is no doubt he is a shamanic initiate. The fundamental contributor to failed shamanic initiation in contemporary cultures is the suppressed role of shaman in the culture. Please take a moment to think about that statement. Without a clear offer of mentorship and a deeply connected sense of ancestral tradition, shamanistic individuals may endure initiatory processes and triumph in that, but then never connect with a firm manifestation of the shamanistic role. In this way they remain shamanistic individuals and may channel their impulse to offer shamanistically-inspired contributions to the culture, but they never get firmly seated in the actual role of shaman. That's not to suggest they don't have profound influence.
Shamanic initiation is a distinct process that if fully realized results in the individual performing a specifically defined role within their culture. The works of contemporary Westernized psychospiritual leaders such as Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell can inform the process of initiation, offering a road map that can provide comfort to some in the throws of it. But we must be careful in conceptualizing initiation solely in these terms because the psychospiritual approaches are often fundamentally solipsistic in nature. As such they are hostile to animism. This presents a burden for contemporary shamanic individuals, as Western culture is rational materialist and also hostile to animism. Yet, in order to thrive shamanism cannot exist apart from it’s animistic (and/or esoteric) roots. This creates a dilemma for many shamanic individuals, as they experience an initiatory process, but that process often gets derailed because of the lack of proper elderhood, and the ill-defined role of shamans in contemporary cultures. This may contribute to a high likelihood for psychiatric hospitalization, mental health diagnoses, homelessness, and addictive and self-harming behaviors among shamanic individuals who have been catapulted into an initiation process. Without having a context, many who are experiencing the shamanic impulse have turned to other cultures to jump-start or further their initiatory processes. But they can quickly find that the cultural shamanic expressions they are learning don’t translate well into urban and/or Westernized cultures. This can be disheartening and also lead to derailed initiatory processes. So shamanic initiation in contemporary, Westernized, post-industrial cultures can be wrought with dangers that aren't experienced in the same ways as archaic and/or indigenous shamanic initiations are. That's not to suggest that archaic initiations aren't dangerous, but that 'wrestling tigers' takes on a different meaning depending on what culture you're within.
My hope is that this enlightened your understanding of the complexities and dangers of shamanic initiation, but also that it offered an expanded view that took you beyond the stereotype and that you may embrace the larger archetype of shamanism. We're all in this together. And the idea that contemporary cultures can't contain shamanism is a faulty idea that is based on a stereotype that really must be dispelled. The time is NOW.