The Wisdom of the Shamans

Over the last half-century there has been a surge of interest in shamanic spirituality and culture in the modern West. Running in parallel to the interest in Eastern spirituality, shamanism has become a major area of focus and has had a huge impact on contemporary spiritual culture.

Shamanism is the most ancient form of spirituality we currently know of, and was the basis of humanity’s way of connecting with a deeper experience of life for the majority of our history. As many scholars and practitioners of shamanism have documented, the core focus of shamanic spirituality generally involves a practitioner learning to open up access to multiple realms of reality and the beings and information that reside on them; to the healing, divination and soul empowerment of others; to working with subtle energies, plants and nature for the benefit of the tribe; and to how humanity can live in harmony with itself and the earth as a whole. Of course like every spiritual pathway, it inevitably has more and less sophisticated expressions.

Despite the massive geographical range spanned by the different shamanic lineages, from Siberia to Africa to Tibet and Mongolia to Europe and North and South America, shamanic spirituality has generally shared a pretty consistent cosmology – that is, a fairly standard model for understanding reality.

That model suggests that reality can be understood to have three main levels to it. These are called in shamanic spirituality the lower world, the middle world, and the upper world. I believe there is a unique genius in this model that I would like to explore in this piece, as well as certain limitations.

To start with the middle world, this is the world of our everyday waking conscious experience. It is the realm in which we find the majority of our conventional lives, in connection with ourselves, our relationships, and the world.

The upper world relates to layers of increasingly subtle planes of experience that the shamanic worldview sees as above, or transcendent to our regular everyday experience. These planes are pervaded by increasingly intense levels of light, information, vibration, energy and consciousness. Trained shamans are able to ascend in their consciousness into these levels and journey as they wish, coming into contact with other forms of consciousness and energy on these levels and the information present on them.

The lower world relates to frequencies of our experience that the shamanic worldview understands to be below the radar of our regular everyday experience. These include the consciousness, energy and information present in the emotional and physical layers of our being, and then also down into the body of the earth. Trained shamans are able to journey down, into and through these frequencies of reality too.

For me, one of the deepest pieces of insight in shamanic cosmology relates to this lower world. Many other traditions and forms of spirituality understand that there are higher realms of consciousness, energy and information that can be reached through a process of ascent from our everyday waking consciousness. What most traditions do not seem to have accounted for in the way shamanic spirituality does though, is that despite the general assumption that we are already conscious on the levels of emotion and the physical body (what shamanism calls the lower world), actually, we’re really not!

Rather, we are generally conscious in the middle world, which is where we engage our experience of self, relationship and world through the conceptualising function of the mind. The middle world includes the experience of emotions and the physical world, but always through the lens of the mind. Anyone practicing an authentic path of awakening at some point comes to recognise how powerfully the conceptualising function of the mind divides the totality of reality into labelled forms – self and other, this and that, subject and objects…. What shamanic spirituality understands, among many other important insights, is that it is a totally different thing to really descend into and inhabit the consciousness, energy and information present on the emotional and physical frequencies of experience without it being filtered through the mind.

What shamans understand about these frequencies of being is that despite the views of popular culture to the contrary, our bodies are conscious, our emotional fields are conscious, nature is conscious, and all of these are interconnected as fields of consciousness, energy and information. When they can be explored without being filtered by the mind, they, just like the realms of the upper world, are much less solid and crystallised than appears to be the case when they are viewed from the middle world. Learning to access this frequency of reality is what allows trained shamans to connect with the wisdom present in our bodies in profound ways, as well as that in nature and animals; to engage in intuitive diagnosis and healing of physical and psychological issues; to initiate the reintegration of previously split-off aspects of our psyche (also called soul retrieval); and gives them the ability to connect with, understand and participate in the intelligence and harmony of nature on an entirely different level.

I’d suggest it is likely for these reasons that there has been such interest in the shamanic approach in the field of Western psychology. It has clearly been realised that shamanic practitioners have learned to access and skilfully navigate the realms described by Western psychologists as the sub-conscious in ways that can powerfully facilitate psychological healing and empowerment. Add to this the importance that community and a connection to nature have in shamanic spirituality, both of which have been shown in Western psychological research to play strong roles in psychological and physical well-being, and the importance of us recognising and honouring the wisdom of the shamans is clear.

For the trained shaman, far from the levels of emotion, the body, nature and down into the soil of the earth being best to transcend, they are experienced as rich, vibrantly alive and abundant with the intelligence present through all of manifestation, from the planets and trees to the wild animals of the forests and our own physical bodies. This is something that most other traditions either miss entirely, or don’t bring online as worth exploring until their most advanced levels of practice. In a sense we could say that this is then when one comes back down the mountain after having first left emotions, body and earth behind on the way up.

The Limitations of Shamanic Cosmology

As well as its values, which of course extend well beyond the points I’ve explored above in relation to the lower world, the shamanic cosmology does have some limitations. One I’d like to explore here is that it doesn’t really understand or cover awakening to absolute reality – that which has been the focus of the non-dual and certain theistic traditions. Often shamanic cosmology is pretty blurry when it comes to clearly articulating the absolute reality that is the non-dual ground of all manifestation. It has a deep understanding of the interconnection of all reality that exists at subtle levels, but the radical unity that is revealed in non-dual awakening is of a different order. Either it doesn’t include this at all, or it places it as the ‘top’ of the upper world and equates it with formlessness.

Not including it results in shamanism generally not recognising the opportunity for all beings to radically awaken to their true nature as the one infinite awake presence emanating as all reality, and the unconditioned freedom, bliss, joy, love and wisdom that are innate in that realisation. To include absolute reality as found at the ‘top’ of the upper world and equate it with formlessness is another common issue, especially among western spiritual practitioners who are deeply influenced by shamanism. This fails to recognise that source-reality pervades, interpenetrates and is the recognisable essence of reality at all levels – upper, middle and lower. And by equating the absolute with formlessness it actually reinforces duality rather than opening to the recognition that the absolute is that which radically transcends, embraces and interpenetrates all form and formlessness.

That said, of course every lineage and tradition has its strengths and limitations, its areas of cultivated wisdom and its blind spots. Without doubt, the field of global spirituality is so much richer for the increasing presence of the shamanic contribution there. And, as a global perspective on the different traditions of wisdom and knowledge on human potential emerges, we see that the different traditions have mined incredible insights on different aspects of human potential and reality that when put together, show us the beginnings of a complete path.

Unfortunately, just like the flooding out of Tibetan Buddhism into the West that came after the invasion of the Chinese, often the rise of shamanic spirituality in the West has come as the homelands of the shamanic communities have been exploited and devastated for their resources. May this pattern change as soon as is possible, so that we can honour not only the shamanic insights but also the communities that have developed them. Then, may we integrate these insights with the gifts from other traditions, and increasingly see an entirely new and truly holistic path emerge.