By Stephanie Tighe, MSW and Kate Durda, M.A.

This article first appeared in NEXUS NEWS January, 1998

Shamanism is the oldest known spiritual practice in recorded history, going back over 40,000 years. It has been found in all pre-technological cultures. Shamans are not persons concerned with gaining personal power, but are persons who are willing to make sacrifices in order to bring healing to individuals, their communities, and the earth. The word “shaman” is Russian (Tungus) in origin and refers to one who “specialized in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld”. (Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton University Press, 1972).

Michael Harner, author of “The Way of the Shaman”, refers to this state of consciousness as the shamanic State of Consciousness or SSC. While in the SSC, you journey into non-ordinary reality (NOR) also known as the “sky” or “upperworld”, “middleworld” and the “lowerworld”. NOR is where the shaman “journeys”, to commune with spirit, and receive guidance. It is her that one meets with individual teachers, guides, and “power animals” (totems) for the purpose of gaining knowledge and healing, both for oneself and for others.

There are various cultural traditions of shamanism that exist in the world, both currently and historically. This article will present an introduction of what is called “Core Shamanism”. Core shamanism presents the “core” healing practices, which are found within all cultural shamanic traditions. The importance of this approach is that the traditional role of the shamans was not only healer, but also the “innovator” of their community. The Shaman helps individual and the community to make transitions (and thereby stay in balance and maintain health) as needed in response to external physical or cultural pressures or developments that demand change. As we no longer live in small villages or tribes, as did many shamanic peoples in the past, we have a need for understanding the “essentials” of shamanic practice and adapting these to our current culture. Core Shamanism allows the healer to work within the traditions and circumstances of their own community, in a manner that is in balance with contemporary society, while still practicing shamanic techniques.

In “Core” shamanism, just as in “cultural” shamanism, the techniques are the same; the person seeking healing for themselves or others ‘journeys’ to NOR and works in concert with their teachers receiving guidance from them as to what is for the highest good of the individual or community for whom they are seeking assistance or healing. The ceremony and rituals around this journey vary from culture to culture. In Africa, for instance, the entire tribe would be involved in the healing, but today shamanic work often occurs with individuals alone. Whenever possible, it is preferable to have as many of the individual’s family members and friends present for a healing session.

Each of us came from a culture (ancestrally) that was shamanic. Shamanism is our birthright too, even if we are 10th generation American (or any other contemporary cultural lineage). Although we can learn from other cultural shamans, like the Q’ero elders of Peru, etc., we live in another culture with another history. Joseph Campbell (in a video entitled “The First Storytellers”) describes shamanism as the bridge from old ritual to new ritual, and attributes to shamanism the role of helping cultures transform. Practicing the techniques for “core” shamanism, in direct concert with the aid of teachers and guides in NOR, allows the shamanic practitioner to meet the needs of his/her client in contemporary society, the healing issues and outcomes of which will differ considerably from healings done 300 or 2,000 years ago.

All shamanic healing, however, no matter what the external form or historical/cultural setting, revolves around restoring balance, harmony and health to the self and one’s relations with the world around them. This speaks to the inherent and lasting usefulness of shamanic healing methods.

The Shamanic Journey and Healing

Although some cultures used entheogenic (plant based) substances such as Peyote or Ayahuasca to enter in to the SSC, the majority of cultures used a drum or other rhythm instrument, as well as dancing, chanting, and movement. Ancient cultures knew what now has been proven scientifically, that a steady, rhythmic drumbeat facilitates a shift in consciousness (from beta to alpha and theta brainwave activity). This shift into the SSC allows personal truths and guidance to be readily accessed and helps to awaken dormant or strengthen ones’ spiritual abilities.

The practice of journeying does not require or hinder any specific religious beliefs per se, but it invariably encourages practitioners to see the sacred in the world around them, i.e. to discover animism. Our ancestors believed that all created things- humans, plants, animals, etc. have an intelligent communicative life force or spirit. Their beliefs often led them to live a life in harmony, in balance with their environment, particularly when compared with contemporary western society.

In core shamanism, there are three basic healing techniques: Restoration of Lost Power; Extraction (of harmful energies or entities); and Soul Retrieval. In addition to these three core practices, there are many important applications of shamanic work, including working with the souls of those who are dying, or who have passed on; divination work; working with the nature spirits; weather work; working with power of place and healing place; conflict resolution; soul path and expansion of creativity; healing with spiritual light; transfiguration/transmutation of personal and environmental toxins, etc. The shamanic journey, and shamanic practice actually lends itself to anything that is out of balance, or in need of healing. It is a powerful healing path.

In addition to these techniques, there are endless other healing methods that one can learn from specific cultures as well as learning from essentially the primary source-Spirit, as manifested and transmitted through one’s teachers in non-ordinary reality.

What Michael Harner discovered though his anthropological studies and his extensive work with experiential shamanism is that the shamanic journey is accessible to everyone. Through the practice of journeying you can improve your problem solving abilities, enhance creativity, achieve inner peace and healing, learn to live in balance and harmony, and deepen your connections to others and to the natural world. Not everyone who journeys becomes a ‘shaman’ (contemporary folks call themselves “shamanic practitioners” to show respect for the historical role shamans played in tribal cultures), but anyone with an interest in journeying, who practices regularly, can benefit deeply from this practice.

Stephanie and Kate are shamanic practitioners who founded Spirit Weavers (, an organization that is committed to fostering spiritual community, and to increasing the understanding of and access to shamanism as a spiritual practice and healing modality. They are available to facilitate healing work and workshops. They are also founding members, along with 5 other shamanic practitioners from the Midwest states of Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan) of Pathways Foundation for Peace and Healing, ( They can be reached at or at (517) 543 6754.