Shamanic Healing and Spiritual Practice (Part 1 of 2)

Kate Durda, MA.

printed in CoSozo Magainze, Lansing, MI December, 2009

In our Western culture, ancient healing and spiritual practices such as yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, and meditation have only begun to be better understood and embraced. Shamanism is another such practice which, like the others mentioned here, is perhaps more relevant and current today despite its origins centuries ago.

This is Part 1 of an article that will introduce shamanism and shamanic healing. In Part 1 of our article, we will cover a brief history of shamanism, introduce you to key concepts in shamanism such as journeying, animism, and different states of consciousness, among others. Part 2 of this article, which will be published in the January 2010 issue of CoSozo Living will focus on the historic role of the shaman, shamanic healing, and shamanism as an individual spiritual practice.


The word “shamanism” refers to the oldest known spirituality, and is borrowed from the Russian Tungus (Evenk) language. Saman, a tribal word for their practitioners loosely translated means “one who ‘knows’ or ‘sees’ in the dark.’’ The word shamanism has been used as a catch-all to describe this over 40,000 year old, almost universally practiced spirituality that predates all of our modern religions and spiritual practices. This article will use the words shaman and shamanism, while recognizing that historically, different cultures use their own titles and language to describe the very same practices.

Shamanic healing, regardless of external form or historical/cultural setting, is centered on restoring balance, harmony, and health to the self and with the external world. Throughout the long course of history, our ancestors developed a remarkable approach to maximize the human ability of uniting mind and spirit together for healing and problem-solving. The shaman served the community in many ways, finding game or a new spring for water, helping someone heal from an illness, assisting in grief and loss recovery, helping a deceased person’s soul “cross over to the other side,” and even helping to guide the tribe or village when direction was needed in times of disaster or war.

The Shamanic Journey, Consciousness, and Energy

How did they “see” where the water was, or “know” how to heal in these ways? The shamanic journey is a key practice and what differentiates a shaman from other types of healers. By altering his/her consciousness, a practitioner has access to the hidden world of energy or source referred to variously as the dreamtime and the spirit realm. It is also referred to as “non-ordinary reality,” a term originally coined by Carlos Castaneda, a prolific writer on the subject. Modern day quantum physicists and scientists refer to it as the “universal field” of energy or the “quantum field” of energy.

Simply put, we are energy, the world around us is energy, and the universal field is the sum of that energy that exists beyond our egos, minds, and ordinary perceptions. It is accepted that there are two realities and that what an individual is able to perceive depends on the reality one is in. Michael Harner, an anthropologist who has been instrumental in bringing shamanism into the consciousness of modern Western society, points out that ordinary reality and non-ordinary reality are empirically experienced and each has its own form of knowledge and relevance to human existence. (Science, Spirits, and Core Shamanism by Michael Harner © Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 12, No. 1)

We normally contact this non-ordinary reality field only through myths, dreams, or times, but most of us are not able to consciously enter this energy at will. On the other hand, the mystic, shaman, or other advanced spiritual practitioner can readily contact this realm, easily crossing the veil between ordinary consciousness and non-ordinary reality as needed. Michael Harner states that “everything that’s ever been known, everything that can be known, is available to the shaman in the Dreamtime. That’s why shamans can be prophets; that’s why they can also go back and look at the past. With discipline, training, and the help of the spirits, this total source of knowledge is accessible.”(Shamanic Healing: We are not alone. An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie Horrigan. Shamanism: Spring/Summer 1997, 10, No.1.)

The answer to how shamans did their healing work was that they accessed truth and knowledge during the shamanic journey into non-ordinary reality.

Some cultures used entheogenic (plant-based) substances such as peyote or ayahuasca to enter this consciousness, here referred to as the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC). However, the majority of cultures used a drum or other rhythmic instrument, as well as dancing, chanting, and movement, which in scientific terms is referred to as sonic driving. It is scientifically proven that a steady, rhythmic drumbeat or other type of sonic driving 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 or strengthen one’s dormant or burgeoning spiritual abilities.

Dr. Michael Harner established the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS), which is credited with increasing the understanding of shamanism in the modern world. It has also supported some indigenous communities in maintaining their spiritual heritage, and has helped some communities to re-establish or strengthen their practices. FSS has also widely communicated a method of ‘journeying’ in which westerners can easily engage. FSS provides beginning and advanced training throughout the world in journeying and shamanic healing methods. The FSS goal is to help restore our connection to our ancestral knowledge and facilitate healing in the world.

The method of journeying as taught by FSS involves sonic driving, using a drum or other sound, and a simple method to allow one to enter into the shamanic state of consciousness. Following a simple methodology, accompanied by sonic driving (often repetitive drumming), individuals can learn to journey. With time and practice, individuals become more skilled at accessing information, guidance, and energy available in the shamanic state of consciousness. Advanced practitioners engaged in deep healing efforts may transcend into deeper states of consciousness. For most journeying, even though the practitioner is in a higher state of consciousness during the shamanic journey, they are aware of what is happening around them in ordinary reality, perceiving noises, lights, or other stimuli. In deep work, the practitioner may experience intervals of time where they are less aware of the world around them. At these times, the shaman may enlist the aid of another practitioner to “hold the energy” and watch over. Finally, when the journey is over, and/or when the desired results or information has been obtained, the practiced individual can return to the ordinary state of consciousness at will.

In order to better understand states of consciousness, it is beneficial to have some knowledge regarding brainwave patterns. Brainwave patterns have been researched at length during different states of consciousness, from sleeping to wakefulness, including varied altered states of consciousness achieved through spiritual practices.

The following brainwave patterns are known to be associated with different mental activities and levels of consciousness:

Beta state is associated with peak concentration, heightened alertness and visual acuity.
Alpha state is a place of deep relaxation where one can begin to access symbolic insight and creative imagery.
Theta state is associated with vivid imagery and receptivity to information beyond our normal conscious awareness. Theta meditation increases creativity, enhances learning, reduces stress, and awakens intuition and other extrasensory perception skills. For those familiar with chakras or energy centers within the human body, the theta state opens the third eye.

While we accomplish amazing and needed mental tasks while in the beta state of processing, the alpha and theta brainwaves are very beneficial. These brainwave states are associated with heightened feelings of well-being and euphoria, increased creativity, and deep emotional healing.

Meditation is one of many ways we can achieve increased alpha and theta wave activity. Meditation is commonly defined as a mental discipline where the intent is often to enter into a deeper state of relaxation by clearing or emptying the mind. However, it seems that many individuals cannot voluntarily turn off their mental activity for any length of time. Interestingly, those individuals who have a difficulty quieting the mind in meditation may find themselves very successful at journeying because it involves the component of external sonic driving, which helps to shift their brainwaves.

A recent study by Dr. Barry Quinn found that 20% of the population does not engage in alpha brain waves at all. (Robert Lawrence Friedman The Healing Power of the Drum, White Cliffs Media, Inc., October 2000)

His research studied the effects of drumming, which dramatically increased the alpha state in individuals who had low to no alpha activity. Dr. Quinn, a psychologist, found that those with lower than normal amounts of alpha or no alpha have much more mental stress than other people. He discussed alpha waves having positive benefits of increasing the ability to relax and keep flexible and associating with general feelings of well-being and euphoria. On the other hand, a lack of alpha waves is associated with mental stress, hyper vigilance, mental obsessions, and tendency to addictions and sleep disorders. Shamanic journeying, with its use of sonic driving, has the capacity to increase our overall well-being in many ways.

Key Concepts and Beliefs Inherent to Shamanism

A concept that is key to spiritual practice is intent, the vision of what one intends to create or cause to happen by one’s focus or efforts. Intent can influence how one experiences the different states of consciousness. The shamanic journey is undertaken with an intent for accessing healing, information, or another purpose, and is an active process or quest. Shamanic practitioners seek a particular outcome and come back to ordinary reality so informed, depending on the strength of their journey.

The shamanic state of consciousness, guided by intent, allows access to higher planes of consciousness, truth, and knowledge. Much of what the shaman understood and saw to be true in SSC has also been validated by ground breaking work in fields such as the “new biology,” quantum physics, and some forms of alternative medicine. Shamans understood and made use of what are now current concepts such as the power of prayer, the “non-local” mind, long-distance healing, remote viewing, power spots in nature, locations of energy vortices, and more. Regarding non-locality, for example, the shaman knew that space and time did not hinder healing, and when needed they did their healing or divination work successfully from a distance.

In recent decades, scientists have verified the efficacy of such things as remote viewing, long distance healing, and many other phenomena previously regarded as impossible. In their journeys, shamans routinely discovered information that there was no ordinary way of knowing, such as divining specific healing properties of plants directly rather than through years of trial and error research. Their knowing came from what we call direct revelation. Shamanism is not a belief system based in dogma but rather a system of direct revelation based on experiences that the shamanic practitioner has while in the shamanic state of consciousness.

Another characteristic of shamanism is the belief in animism or the belief that all natural objects and beings have spirit within them. Shamans believed that all created things (humans, plants, animals, etc.) have an intelligent communicative life force or energy. Shamanic cultures strongly believed in the existence of spirits, both helping spirits found in the spiritual energy realm, as well as in spirits of the dead who have not crossed over or moved from the earth plane. In shamanic practice, the shaman’s knowledge and work is aided by these guides and allies in the spirit realm. Shamans have “totems” or power animals, as well as tutelary figures called teachers or guides. These energies in non-ordinary reality partner with the shaman and provide guidance, insight, protection, and vital information which the shaman is seeking. Shamans develop partnerships with these helping spirits and the strength and power of their work is reflective of the quality of their relationships in non-ordinary reality.

We have found shamanism as a personal spiritual practice to be one of the most direct and powerful ways to really feel connected and “one” with all. Such experiences are truly transformative; you are never the same again. You will know in your core that you are connected, and you will come to understand your true self. It can feel like finally coming home.

Whether you may be interested in experiencing the shamanic journey and learning this spiritual practice for yourself, or in seeking assistance with shamanic healing, which we will discuss more in Part 2, shamanism can be a powerful tool on your spiritual and personal path. Enjoy the journey!

Printed in December 2009 Edition of CoSozo journal: Lansing, MI

Shamanic Healing and Spiritual Practice (Part 2 of 2)
Kate Durda, MA. printed in CoSozo Magainze, Lansing, MI December, 2009

Shamanic Healing

This is Part 2 of an article to introduce shamanism as a spiritual practice. Part 1 of our article, published in the December 2009 issue of CoSozo Living, focused on the history and key concepts of the shamanic journey and the various states of consciousness that are important to understand for this topic. Part 2 of this article focuses on the historic role of the shaman, shamanic healing, and shamanism as an individual spiritual practice.

It is important to note that although the shaman serves an intermediary role, through his/her intention, all healing work is achieved through the connection with the spiritual realm and energies, not by the shaman. The shaman taps into and channels universal life force, or energy, and facilitates the healing rather than performing it, a concept familiar in other spiritual healing methods such as Reiki.

Traditionally shamans served complex and multiple roles in their communities, which over the centuries have included divination, healing, spiritual counseling, and leading ceremonies, among others. In shamanic terms, healing involves restoring balance and energy, including, but not limited to:

Soul retrievals (restoration of our essence and soul energy - ex. post-traumatic stress disorder)
Psycho pomp (helping spirits cross over after death)
Power restoration (addressing depression, bad luck, chronic illness)
Extraction (removal of spiritual blocks in energy; loss of power; localized pain; precursors to, and established serious illnesses)

When we speak of shamanic healing, what we are referring to is the facilitation of a shift in energy which restores balance to the presenting problem or issue. A shaman will journey for a client and seek information and guidance that will accomplish that. In shamanic terms, individuals who are healthy and in balance are filled with spiritual power. Michael Harner refers to this as analogous to “a spiritual immune system.”1 In this state of spiritual power, an individual is more able to maintain their overall well-being. As an individual slips from this state, illnesses, “bad luck”, and less optimal states of wellness may begin. The human being has amazing self-healing abilities both emotionally and physically. However, as we all know, there are times that we become so out of balance that we need external help. Just as we sometimes need an antibiotic or medical care when the body’s self healing capacity is inadequate, shamanic healing may be helpful when our spiritual state is out of balance.

In any discussion of shamanic healing, we must identify a core element of shamanism that is not typically considered in Western approaches to medicine – a focus on the soul. In shamanism, the soul is understood to be our spiritual and personal power. To the shamanic practitioner, traumatic events or even other energies or people can cause us to lose a part of our soul, or power, which can result in physical and emotional maladies. Soul retrieval wherein the shaman journeys to locate the missing part of the soul and retrieve it to restore the individual to full personal power, is a standard practice in shamanism and is unique to this healing method. Extraction is another common healing method, but in this case, energies that diminish or impede the expression of one’s soul are removed.

Another concept important to discuss is that shamanism addresses the spiritual cause of an illness or problem. As Michael Harner writes, “there’s no simple one-to-one concordance between the spiritual illness and the ordinary reality illness. You can’t say, ‘this equals that’.”2

An illustrative example from our practice is insomnia. A woman presented with a long-standing problem of insomnia, for which she had sought cures and relief from many traditional and non-traditional sources with no success. Through shamanic journeying, the practitioner discovered a disruption in energy that occurred in the past, in the nighttime, that caused soul loss. The practitioner retrieved and restored the lost soul energy, and related this to the client, who then remembered experiencing, when quite young, the traumatic death of a sibling, in the middle of the night. This had been forgotten by the client, buried in her subconscious. This awareness, in addition to literally shifting the energy field by restoring lost soul energy is how shamanic healing effectively cleared this trauma. Through this process of soul retrieval, the client began to sleep again normally.

All of our experiences are recorded in our subconscious mind, which is an extraordinarily more powerful neurological processor than the conscious mind. This is why psychological therapeutic methods that involve cognitive processes, and talking, often cannot help deeply rooted problems. Soul retrieval is one method that has been found to be profoundly helpful with such issues, because it bypasses the mind and goes right to the energetic truth of a problem.

This capacity of shamanism to offer healing methods that are not found in other existing modalities underlies the inherent and lasting usefulness of shamanic healing. Shamanism continues to be worldwide in most indigenous cultures, as well as within modern society. Carl Jung, in the 1930s, felt that the West had lost a needed mode of spirituality as represented by such practices as yoga and shamanism, and he foresaw these practices as emerging in the West because the Western psyche had become unbalanced in his view.3

Within the last decade alone, we have seen a tremendous increase in our society regarding the desire for information and involvement in the ancient body/mind/spirit health and wellness practices such as meditation, yoga, Reiki, acupuncture, and others. We also are in the midst of the rise of quantum physics’ studies which are allowing us to finally comprehend and embrace some of the fundamentals of these practices. These events are enabling us to apply our sciences to better understand and validate the principles in the energetic realm on which these healing modalities are founded.

Shamanism as Individual Spiritual Practice

How did some individuals become shamans? Historically, there were many paths to the shamanic calling. Near-death experiences or serious illness served as an initiation for some. Others had a visionary dream announcing their purpose; and yet others inherited the role, or voluntarily apprenticed. However, only those individuals who had the true ability to perform healing and achieve the desired results would be deemed a shaman by the people he or she served. Shamans experienced spiritual initiations and engaged in many years of practice to develop their abilities before serving their communities.

Most contemporary practitioners of shamanism are not living within a tribe or unique culture, and are not in the role of the traditional shaman. They refer to themselves as shamanic practitioners, and engage in healing and journeying practices in their communities. However, it is important to note that an individual can practice shamanism without actually becoming a shaman. Although shamanism is a healing practice, it can also be a transformative personal spiritual practice for interested individuals.

The shamanic journey is accessible to anyone interested. As with all areas of life, some individuals may find it easier and more accessible than others. Through instruction and practice, most individuals can successfully engage in the shamanic journey. If you are interested in learning how to journey, while there are how-to books and instructional material, it is generally recommended to work with a trusted and established practitioner at some point. Through the practice of journeying you may improve your problem solving abilities, enhance creativity, deepen your sense of inner peace, actuate self healing, learn to live in balance and harmony, and deepen your connections to others and to the natural world. Some who engage in this practice may be drawn to pursue the healing practitioner path, but anyone with an interest in journeying, who practices regularly, can personally benefit deeply from this practice.

We know that the mind/body/spirit connection is of vital importance not only in helping us to heal from illness, but beyond that, to truly thrive and live in a state of wellness. Shamanism has ancient wisdom and practical knowledge in how to work with energy. It is no coincidence that shamanism has been, and still is, practiced around the world, as this way of life is as natural as breathing - it is our birth right, fostering the development of our natural physical, psychological, spiritual well-being and health.


In closing, shamanism is a complex system of spiritual connection, practice, and healing that blends the symbolism and connection with nature and all living beings with the relevancy of the present. At the same time, although shamanism as a practice evolves with experience and time, it is accessible to everyone. You can see why this practice has been used as a spiritual and healing tool for the past 40,000 years!


1 Science, Spirits, and Core Shamanism by Michael Harner © Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 12, No. 1
2 Shamanic Healing: We are not alone. An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie Horrigan. Shamanism: Spring/Summer 1997, 10, No.1.
3 5 February 2006 Interview with John Merchant, Ph.D., Jungian Psychologist, on ABC Radio National.

Printed in January 2010 Edition of CoSozo journal: Lansing, MI