Perhaps it is my rebellious spirit warrior nature that questions everything. I don’t know if this is an asset or a detriment, but I do know that it often puts me out of the status quo of whatever circle I find myself in. I tend to think this questioning of authority, of the prescribed beliefs within our culture, is an emerging trend, motivated by deeper impulses to evolve, preserve human kind, and make the world a better place to be. The shamanic impulse is a big part of this emergence, and as we tear down structures and systems that are no longer working for us, we must find a way to build new ones. The temptation for some is to be suspicious and even critical of those things that challenge the 'way things are’, and as the shamanic impulse becomes stronger and more apparent in modern cultures, it’s not surprising that resistance and misunderstandings arise. Even within the shamanic community itself I have encountered a lack of understanding and an oppressive spirit that seems to want to tamp down the shamanic impulse. What’s motivating this is an entirely different essay. But for now let’s just assume that the shamanic impulse resurged in the United States only about 60 years ago. This is both 60 years young, and 60 years old. It’s not enough time to have clearly established an accessible authority and lineage, but is enough time to see generational change, a changing of the guards, and all the conflict that this potentially causes- the archetypal struggle of the individuating adolescent and the controlling parent.
While we will forever be grateful for those pioneers who heeded the shamanic impulse and faced all sorts of backlash from the over-culture to make the way for us, we’re also still sifting through to keep the pearls while allowing the less pure elements burn off. Some of those less pure elements are showing up here within the Twelve Myths of Modern American Shamanism.
Before I jump into the twelve myths I need to point out that I am fully aware that the term “shaman” likely was derived from a very specific culture and language in North Asia. How I am using the term here is to speak of a universal archetype of the shaman, but within the specific context of how that role plays out exclusively in American (non-indigenous) culture. These myths are multi-layered, inter-related, and so complex. Please bear with me as I flush them out.
1. “Real shamans” are rare.
Anytime I see the word “real” in front of a personal noun I know I’m likely dealing with a projection. I don’t really know what a “real shaman” is, because the “real” is always qualified by an individual’s own ideas about how that is defined. There has been a lot of talk and accusation about “plastic shamans”, who are people who allegedly appropriate the title of “shaman” for personal gain or advancement but haven’t really earned the title, or they’ve adopted practices from cultures other than their own and claim them as their own. I can’t deny this does happen, but it’s fairly easy to spot, and I am not convinced it occurs to such a degree that the majority of people calling themselves shamans are in this category. As long as we keep promoting this idea that shamans are rare, shamanism is not going to flourish. We need to empower and support the shamanic impulse, or it will indeed be rare. In fact, I don’t believe shamans are rare at all. I think we’ve just oppressed them for so long and to such a degree that they’ve gone into hiding, or may not even know that what they are experiencing is the shamanic initiation.
2. Shamans are mentally ill.
The Internet has undoubtedly shaped our modern culture, and has been used to spread information and ideas that have both been revolutionary and archaic, healing and injuring, sacred and profane. There’s a recent and profoundly influential article titled “What A Shaman Sees In A Mental Hospital”, by Stephanie Marohn. She cites the work of Dr. Malidoma Patrice Somé, who has long been a staple in soulful men’s communities. And if you’ve arrived at this article, you’re likely familiar with Stephanie’s article. Thousands of people have read it, discussed it, shared it. And it is a powerful article. Like much of Dr. Somé’s work, it exposes the Shadow of American over-culture in how it has treated it’s shamans, how we collectively have lost our soul. But a common misperception is that shamans are mentally ill. This may be a matter of semantics, but it’s necessary to be concise here because there is a crucial intersection between Western allopathic psychiatry and shamanism that is only going to become more pointed as time goes on.
A shaman doesn’t come from mental illness. They aren’t ‘born out of’ mental illness. Rather, there are distinct signs one is a shaman, symptoms if you will, and these can be misunderstood and mislabeled in modernized cultures as being “mental illness.” Furthermore, if not properly channeled and put to use, with the oppressive and downward social and cultural pressures on shamanic types, they can literally “go mad”, which is a pathological state of failed initiation. It is different than what most call “mental illness.” This is the shaman sickness. It comes from not following one’s soul path. In this way of understanding it is the not the shaman who is sick, but the culture the shaman is in.
3. Shamans don’t exist in non-indigenous America, or white Americans can’t be shamans.
This idea seems to come from the belief that “real shamans” can only live in indigenous or animistic cultures and that anything different from that is “less than” and “not as powerful.” This idea both influenced and was perpetuated by Lisa Aldred’s article published in The American Indian Quarterly in 2000 (“Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality”). The argument is that European immigrants (‘white people’) who claim to be shamans are nothing more than ‘New Age’ wannabes who perpetuate a false shamanism of ‘love and light.’ I’ll address the accusation of cultural appropriation below, as it’s intricately related, but we need to first come to understanding about this idea that no one from a white European ancestry can be a shaman.
One fundamental myth of this argument is that all Western shamans are coming from a ‘New Age’ belief system and do not understand shamanism, but are just using the title in a trendy culture of spiritual exploitation. I have sat in many shamanic circles with genuine people who by all signs have experienced profound shamanic initiations. I will speak to this within some of the other myths, but I would argue that in every segment of society, in every system and path, there are individuals who are frauds, who are exploitive, who are hypocrites. So I would expect to find these types in the shamanic culture as well. But I suspect these people are actually rare, and there are far less of them than the genuine thing. Judging an entire movement or group by one or two obvious imposters is never a wise thing to do.
I also suspect part of this argument is motivated by this idea that Americans, as the great melting pot of the world, have a break in ancestral lineage that has been significantly tainted by colonialism. Indeed, in our current political climate the ‘white man’ has been called out as the enemy of humankind. But if the very wound of American culture is a loss of ancestral connection, and the soul of American identity has been tragically sold out to colonialism, capitalism, consumerism, then it makes little sense why we would not encourage healing through a reconnection to our ancestral roots and a resurgence through our shamanic lineages. To say American culture is flawed, dis-eased, poisoned, but then to criticize efforts to heal and restore is not in the spirit of the sacred- it actually seeks to make and keep American culture profane.
The truth is, non-indigenous America as we know it today is a young 250 years. Culturally, we are new kids on the block, still in our infancy. Yet, as with all of North America, we have a painful history of individual and cultural atrocity in our colonialist conquest. We are still clearing the karma from this, collectively. But as individuals we must do the work within our own ancestral lineages. It is through this work and through our restoration of our relationships with the First Peoples that healing can be manifest. In this way, as Malidoma Somé’s revelation of how American culture treats it’s shamans was a powerful revealer of our cultural Shadow, Standing Rock proved to be a powerful revealer of the Shadow in how we treat the indigenous people, and revealed the complete rejection of the archaic impulse that colonialism indoctrinated us into. The two things- the shamanic impulse and the archaic impulse- are like two sides of the same coin. And so as Western shamanism resurges, it’s expected that these sociopolitical issues will emerge and the Native American cultures will backlash.
But this myth in particular seems to be intricately tied to the Shadow side of the First People’s cultural wound. It promotes an anger, an unforgiveness, a profane view of the white man as being incapable of having a soul or of reclaiming the soul in a way that is sacred and honorable. One of the things Standing Rock potentially offered us was the common meeting ground, where holy men, elders, shamans, from all cultures could come together in unity against the oppression and toxicity of the colonialist mindset. We just need to continue in this work and resist the temptation to stereotype individuals and even subcultures on the basis of the over-culture narratives. We still have healing to do. And let us have grace with one another in this process.
4. Native Americans are the only shamans in America and if you’re not Native you’re culturally appropriating.
This myth sounds so similar to the last one that they could almost be the same. Except that the underlying assumption of this myth is that Native Americans comprise a single culture and that they have the role of shaman. The First Peoples are represented by many, many tribes, each with their own language, culture, ceremonies. To clump them all into one is not honoring of them. And while nearly all the Native American cultures were animistic, they didn’t necessarily have shamans. The tribal chiefs and elders are often misrepresented as shamans. Or the 'holy men' are confused with shamans.
Cultural appropriation happens, and when it does it’s a grievous offense. But we have to be honest here- there’s a difference between stealing something that isn’t yours to pass it off as your own, and adopting something because it resonates with you and you want to honor it. Again, the further I travel down my own shamanic path the more this distinction between the sacred and the profane becomes obvious. Being on a shamanic path I have had the opportunity to experience a variety of ceremonies representing many different cultural traditions, some facilitated by individuals native to those cultures, and some facilitated by non-natives who learned from natives, and some handed down through multiple translations. It was all sacred, because WE are the sacred.
In the United States we have lost a lot of our ancestral ceremonies, our traditions. It was the sacrifice our immigrant ancestors made so they could integrate into their American lives. And yet bits and pieces of these traditions remain, and collectively start to meld and take on their own quality. There’s no more visceral example than looking at an American food menu- it’s decidedly American yet has obvious roots in many different cultures. So I would suggest that the lines of cultural appropriation come down to intent, respect, and honor. And in shamanic work, where the mundane and profane is made sacred, it’s difficult to find any real cultural appropriation going on in my opinion. There’s question about who owns culture anyway, and why people become offended that a non-native is gleaning certain aspects of their culture and reinterpreting that. I understand there’s a desire to keep traditions pristine, the lineage strong. But the culture of America is that of a melting pot, and as politically unpopular as my insight is, I think America is not all bad in terms of how we integrate. Our way of integrating and accommodating many cultural traditions to create something new is remarkable, and the more we promote rigidity in our distinct cultural expressions, the less unity we may be likely to achieve. Coming from a lineage of Irish immigration, I personally find it quintessential American that on St. Patrick’s day my first-generation Mexican immigrant neighbors are throwing back some green-tinted cervezas.
And so should American shamanism look or feel any different than American culture? Some would argue that St. Patty’s Day, like most American celebrations, is disconnected from it’s roots, and has become a profane example of American consumerism. And maybe so. But remember, it is we who are responsible for making the profane sacred. So if the shamans in the United States who have Celtic lineage or interest in Celtic shamanism want to gather to celebrate Samhain, or honor St. Patrick in ceremonious ways, why shouldn’t they? Let them teach us to restore the sacred. Denying this work on the basis of cultural or racial identity would be contributing to maintaining the profane. Promoting the belief that only Native Americans can be shamans is not promoting a path of healing. And integration can be a painful process. Let us undertake it with dignity, grace, and an eye on the sacred.
5. There’s no lineage for shamanism in the West.
I addressed this briefly above, but this deserves more refined understanding, because it’s a popular myth that shamanism can only come from an unbroken lineage, handed down, and that there’s no lineage in America. The problem is that if we adopt this belief, then we must believe there can never be shamans in America because shamans aren’t made in vacuums. In truth, a broken lineage does not mean a non-existent lineage. It simply means we must identify and restore the lineage, and also respect that it will be uniquely American. Because America is the melting pot we have an incredibly rich heritage of tradition, and this can be refined even down to historical era and village. With open access to DNA testing and ancestry research services we can easily trace our DNA ancestry back for centuries. And then there’s the soul DNA, which is an entirely different matter. While the belief in reincarnation is not universally shamanic, connecting with the Spirits is. And so whether one is experiencing “past lives”, or elders and ancestors, or spirit guides, information and teaching can come through that is not necessarily tied to the material DNA lineage. This way of learning is directly from the Spirits, and is distinct from the learning that comes from ancestral research or learning from an elder in a particular tradition. I’ve had many experiences in the spiritual realms of regional African shamanism, of regional South American shamanism, insights into Native American cultural traditions and animistic ways of being, into Chinese and Japanese warrior cultures, which I didn’t learn through academic study and wasn’t pursuing through a known physical DNA line. So ultimately, whatever culture a shaman is in, it’s the Spirits who are the teachers, and the Spirits don’t care about “broken lineages.”
But the culture a shaman is in acts like a lens through which the work is filtered. And it’s hard to disentangle from that. In American culture I would suggest we do have a universal lineage, or lens. Our lineage for understanding shamanism, the role of the shaman, the process of initiation and elderhood includes powerhouses like depth psychologist Carl Jung. This lineage speaks to the ‘hero’s journey’, the quest to individuate, and to know “self.” It is distinctly western, and it forms and directs the archetypal shamanic expression in American culture. There are other strong branches in the western shamanic tree, which have formed the shamanic cosmology, and provide structure to the practice of shamanism in America. Many of these branches have been suppressed or made occult.
I have many shamanic elders/mentors, some of whom do not even know who I am. Hopefully this will change as the shamanic impulse increases and there will be enough shamans in America to offer one-on-one apprenticeships. But the point is, the lineage is there. And the idea that shamans can never exist in America because there’s no lineage or framework for the role in American culture is a myth.
6. The tribe chooses the shaman.
This myth is again tied to culture, and comes from the understanding of how a shaman is selected within tribal societies. In some cultures the shaman is chosen through lineage. In other cultures through specific external signs and proclamations of what those signs means. In some cultures it is the elder shaman who decides who the apprentice will be. In some cultures it is the chief, or tribal leader. In some it is the midwives. In some it is the collective community. And some use a mixture of these confirmations. So shamanistic cultures are incredibly diverse and there is no single way a shaman is identified. However, one thing that is distinctly different in tribal cultures is that there tends to be a distinct community process in deciding and/or confirming a shamanic initiate.
There are several things we have to keep in mind when we’re trying to fit a tribal model to our nuclear family model. First, our over-culture has not yet established the legitimacy of the shamanic role in our communities. In many tribes not having a shaman is like a death sentence. So someone has to be the shaman. This isn’t so in America, and many shamans in America are struggling to achieve legitimacy of their roles. Secondly, we don’t live in communal or tribal arrangements. Our community roles are not delineated with the community mindset, but are motivated out of our self-individuation. A teacher becomes a teacher because she has identified this is how she wants to serve, and she has put in all the effort to achieve that status. The system collectively validates this through defined processes, but it’s all an externalized confirmation. American culture is devoid of the connection with Spirit and soul. In many tribal societies things are decided by ‘signs’ and how these intersect with the Spirit world. In these cultures it isn’t just the exclusive work of the shaman to be connected with Spirit, but all the people in the tribe have connection and understanding. We have to acknowledge this important distinction between animistic and rational materialist cultures. There is no way in a rational materialist culture that is driven by self-determination that shamans will be identified by the same processes used in animistic tribal societies. If shamans in America wait around for others in their communities to confirm for them they are shamans, it may never happen. And so again, perpetuating this myth only ensures that the shamanic impulse gets squashed down before it can manifest itself into a path of service.
7. Shamans look or act a certain way, and Americans don’t look or act like shamans.
Again, this is another myth driven by a faulty expectation that shamans in America need to be just like shamans in other cultures. Can you imagine taking your dog for a walk in your suburban neighborhood and seeing this man walking down the street? I would be excited, but I imagine that the average American would not have those feelings. Many people, because of the Christian overtones in American culture would be fearful, and ideas around witchcraft, sorcery, witch doctors, human sacrifice, would fill the mind.
The costumery of the shaman is highly culturally specific and it communicates something. But this type of eccentricity is scarcely tolerated in American culture, nor is it necessary in our culture. Even in the American shamanic culture our rational materialist minds want to look at the above shaman and conclude that his eccentricity is evidence of his power and is a visual example of how mundane and powerless Western shamans are. In truth, this again comes down to the differences between animistic and rational materialist cultures. In animistic cultures objects themselves have spirits, are living things. So wearing jaguar teeth gives you the power of the jaguar- literally. Whereas those of us on the shamanic path in Western cultures understand our power as originating from within us, with the external being only an effigy, an outward example of the internal. I have a medicine bag. But I can leave it at home and still wield the shamanic power, because as a Western shaman, I understand the power is within me, and my bag is just a reminder, an external touchpoint that takes me back inward. I don’t need it to be able to do the work. So judging one’s shamanic power by external features alone, while it is typically American, does not reveal an accurate picture. If I truly revealed my power external to me I promise you I would scare a lot of people and would have the police called on me.
But more than just the costumery, I think it’s imperative to also discuss the traditions, behaviors, and personality constructs of shamanic types. I’ve talked enough about traditions that hopefully it’s clear how cultural these things really are and how unrealistic it is to assume American shamanism will look anything like Siberian shamanism, or Guatemalian shamanism. So now I want to turn briefly to personality type, because when we step out of the lens of cultural expression, there does remain a universal archetype that transcends culture. This archetype not only delineates the path of the shaman (initiation, descent, death, rebirth, etc.), which is likely the same narrative in every culture, it also delineates the specific personality aspects of the larger shamanic archetype and how those play out into the role. Our lack of understanding about the fullness of the shamanic archetype leads to all sorts of assumptions about what a “real shaman” is. I can’t tell you how many times people have assumed that because I am a shaman I am 1) a Native American, or was taught by one, 2) an herbalist, 3) a connection to get them ayahuasca. The truth is, there are many different types of shamans with different specialties, and different expressions. Just as no two people are alike, no two shamans are alike. And even regionally there will be differences. A shaman in the Appalachian mountains will not look or act like a shaman in New York City.
8. Shamans and healers aren’t the same thing.
This is a new one for me, as I heard it for the first time the other day. I think I understand the basis of the belief, but it seems misguided to me. If I am correct, then the assumption is that a shaman has a distinct role that is different than the role of a healer. I do agree with this. But the misunderstanding is in the seeming assumption that the outcome is separate from the process. Being a “healer” is being connected to the outcome- healing. A healer heals. And so hairstylists can be healers, tattoo artists can be healers, psychotherapists can be healers, spiritualists can be healers, or hypnotists can be healers. Of course a shaman is a healer! But yes, how a shaman works is distinctly different, and the type of services a shaman offers is distinct to shamanism. We could really say the same thing about many aspects of shamanism though- a shaman and a medium are not the same, or a shaman and a psychic, or mystic, or oracle, or channel. A shaman possesses psychic abilities, mediumship skills, acts as an oracle, a prophet, and yet has a distinct method and path that separates the shamanic path from the path of other spiritual workers.
But this idea that a shaman isn’t a healer becomes especially oppressive in a culture where a central common facet of the shamanic archetype is the Wounded Healer. Once again, the cultural prescription is evident. In communal societies individuals have very little drive towards self-individuation. So within such a culture a shaman has little sense of “self”, of “ego”, of “shadow”, and the concept of self-healing does not translate through the cultural lens. But in American culture the shamanic path is likely to involve a significant amount of self-healing as part of the initiation phase of the process, because our collective lineage is in the healing arts, in psychotherapy, and particularly in the drive towards introspection and self-analysis. In American culture it is crucial for the shaman to be “hollow bone”, or that is, significantly healed before entering into shamanic service in the community. They must be adequately individuated in order to incarnate the fullness of the shamanic archetype, because in American culture this is where the shamanic power derives from- the completed individuation and the alliances with the Spirits.
Many shamanic types end up calling themselves “healers” because the pressure within the shamanic community to NOT use the title “shaman” is so oppressive and young initiates are not yet in their power enough to know with absolute certainty what they are. So making this distinction seems misguided and isn’t in the spirit of encouraging shamanic initiates to step out into service.
9. Real shamans walk on water.
This myth is based on the deification of the shamanic power. It is a pervasive and common myth, even within the shamanic community where shamanic types are judging one another on some external factors. People erroneously assume that a shaman ceases to be a human being and adopts a super-human persona. Sentiments claiming Jesus was a shaman only reinforce this idea that being shaman means having super-human abilities, and shamans should be free from the mundane and petty aspects of human life. I am not sure where this myth originated from, because anthropological study and evidence has certainly shown that shamans are quite often caught up in revenge/assault shamanism, sexual assault, and alcoholism. Portrayals of shamans such as in Embrace of the Serpent demonstrate the often petty and human side of shamanic individuals.
In truth, Westernized cultures are incredibly complex, oppressive, and are full of sorcery. In these ways Western shamans must work harder to remain in their power and do so with integrity. We have to continuously combat the sorcery coming through every channel in our culture, to fight and hold space for the sacred, retrieve souls and anchor them in. So in a lot of ways the standards are higher for Western shamans because we are surrounded by sorcery and the temptation to fall into sorcery looms large. The initiation process can be arduous and full of many significant events and trials, all intended by the Spirits to purify and prepare the shaman. These trials aren’t meant to be neat and pretty. They are hard, terrifying, dismembering, assaultive. And human responses are expected. Shamans fall into their fear. They become depressed, burdened, lonely. They suffer injury, dis-ease. They make mistakes. Even so, miracles can and do happen through the shamanic service. But even in eldership, while the shaman may be wise, have impeccability, integrity, they’re still human and still in a learning process. The shaman is different than most people, but they’re not super-human or above human responses. If we continue to perpetuate the idea that people have to be super-human to be shamans then we aren’t going to encourage shamanism, because no one is likely to ever achieve that. In my shamanic path I have yet to arrive at a point where I said, “I have arrived and now I can stop.” I am continuously learning. And every client who honors me with this work teaches me.
10. Calling yourself a shaman is bragging.
I’ve heard a couple different arguments as to why shamans in America should call themselves “shamanic practitioners” and not “shamans.” One of those arguments is that it invites attack, and the other is that it’s considered bragging and a shaman can lose their power. As with every myth discussed thus far, this too is a belief inextricable from animistic culture. In animistic cultures a shaman doesn’t need to call himself anything. Just look at their attire- it says it all! But living in a small tribal organization, it’s not problematic to identify who the shaman are. So this idea of “bragging” comes from ideas that the shaman holds a higher position, or believes he holds a higher position than others in the tribe. Of course this would be considered offensive, even in Western culture! But the difference is that we have no designated costumery, we don’t live in small communal organization, and we don’t have a process whereby the shaman is clearly identified. So if you’re a shaman in America, how are people going to know you are a shaman unless you are identifying yourself? The self-identification generally isn’t motivated out of grandiosity or a sense of superiority, but out of a desire to be of service.
The distinction between “shaman” and “shamanic practitioner” is unnecessary. There is no difference, in my experience, between what a shaman and what a shamanic practitioner does or can do. The shamanic practitioner generally wants to appear humble and be accepted by the peer culture, which maintains this pressure over the title. But it’s my opinion that this is a false humility, because it seeks to appear humble through the strategic use of a title qualifier, when the work is essentially the same. To say one is “practicing” is to say one has not yet arrived in fullness, that one is still a student. But at which point does one decide they have arrived and are no longer a student? Does the shamanic practitioner ever graduate to become the shaman? And if we’re going to talk about power, then a shamanic practitioner who is not in his/her full power shouldn’t really be practicing anything, in my opinion. Shamanic work is serious work. If you’re not fully ready to be doing shamanic work, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Continuing this oppressive labeling and distinction between “shaman” and “shamanic practitioner” is serving to distract us from the work and has the opposite effect really because it decreases the shamanic power in the Western cultural expression of shamanism.
11. Shamanism is a career choice.
Shamanism, as expressed through a universal archetypal soul expression, is not a career choice. I have encountered people within the shamanic community who seem to approach it as if they are in a buffet line and are picking the most attractive item. Thank the Spirits this is rare! I know I run the risk of being accused of being a hypocrite here, but this is just not my experience of how “real shamanism” works. Shamans are defined by specific experiences, contexted in specific ways, and through specific signs. These signs are culturally defined, but they are essential for defining a shaman as a specific type of healer who works in specific ways. These signs and the experiences are things outside of our ordinary control. So the path is different than deciding to be a teacher and going to college to actualize that. No one actually decides to be a shaman. The shamanic path is incredibly difficult. It is full of pain, loss, trauma, dis-ease, spiritual warfare, torment. These are the very things that qualify the shaman. So these aren’t things we willingly choose, at least not on a conscious ego level. These initiations and tests are the things that shape us, teach us, prepare us. But they are more indications of a soul path than a career path. My experience of being on a shamanic path has not been like looking forward and deciding it’s what I want to be, but more like looking back and saying, “Holy shit, that’s what that was?!” I definitely didn’t choose it. It chose me. And I think this is the universal experience of shamans the world over.
That being said, I’ve also encountered the opposite myth- that attending shaman school or weekend workshops doesn’t make one a shaman. Having been in many circles in many different formats I can confidently say that I’ve rarely met a person enrolled in a shaman school who believed taking a course or workshop was going to make them a shaman. Many people are curious about shamanism, and they take a workshop or two to increase their understanding and empower themselves in their self-healing path. But they have no intention of ever being in a shamanic role, or serving in their community in that capacity. And of those who come to the workshops with the intention of serving as shamans in their communities, they come to the workshops already having endured significant initiations and they are taking workshops to build supportive community, and to gain a foundation or context for their practice. These people already know who they are. It’s not surprising that many of the people I have encountered in shamanic schools are practicing psychotherapists. I think chaplaincy and psychotherapy are the two professional careers in Western cultures that attract shamanic types, and they often end up in those roles because there was no clear path for shamanic apprenticeship. So many of these people are already on the soul path, but need the practical and technical skills to put their shamanic gifts to service.
12. Shamans shouldn’t charge a fee.
Over and over I have encountered this myth. It is based on this idea that healing should be free, and the argument is often clouded with shaming- that shamans have been freely given their gifts, so it’s unethical to charge money for services. I’ve even heard people say that we should be wary of shamans who charge because they’re impure and motivated by money. Shamanic work is incredibly difficult. It demands a high level of skill. It’s dangerous, and it’s a life path work with no real boundaries on time. Shamans don’t get to ‘clock out’, and in actuality, even sleep offers no real boundary as a significant amount of work occurs even during dream time. So one hour of time face-to-face with a client can result in four or more hours of work around that single session. In some indigenous cultures the shaman would have the patient move in with them for a 10–14 day period during which the shaman would dedicate his time to observing the patterns and behaviors of the patient, and would do the work. In fact, shamanic work is so valuable in shamanic cultures that being a shaman is a designated role- a full-time job. Again, the shamanic role is not coveted because of the difficulty of the work and the long and dangerous initiation process. But the shaman is always well taken care of within the tribe.
Money is a representation of energy. We need it as an exchange- coming in and going out. Because money is how we exist within American culture, it really only makes sense that a shaman needs to ask for money in exchange for the time and work for the client. The idea that a shaman should work a full-time job and then contain a shamanic practice outside of this schedule and offer services for free is completely ignorant of what shamans do and how incredibly intense that is.
Besides, there’s something to be said about investment. Proper exchange not only honors the work and the shaman, it seats the healing in important ways that benefit the client. So shaming shamans or discouraging people from seeking services from shamans because they are expected to pay for them only serves to delegitimize the shamanic role. It won’t encourage the shamanic impulse, and not because people are motivated solely by money, but because people can’t sustain their lives with no money and won’t be able to dedicate themselves to the shamanic path. This is why so many shamanic types end up as psychotherapists or chaplains. There’s nothing wrong with this, but a psychotherapist or a chaplain is not a shaman. They may have the impulse, the gifts, the soul shape, the distinct journey through initiation, descent, death, rebirth, etc. but if they’re not actually doing the spiritual work, they’re not really in the role of shaman. There are many, many initiates in American culture who never make it to fulfill the community role. It’s time this changes.
This article was originally published in two parts on Medium.