Shamanism: Supernatural, Spiritual and Skeptical

Posted on Saturday, 14th July 2012 @ 12:37 AM by Text Size A | A | A

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One of life’s greatest unsolved mysteries is the existence of ghosts. Do they really exist? Also, if it is ever  proven that they do exist, is it possible to communicate with them?

I always wonder how that conversation would go. Films often paint a haunting picture, one meant to convey entertaining fiction, rather than fact. Although, the movie Casper seems pretty accurate to me – now that’s a ghost I could be best friends with. Unfortunately, there is a huge difference between fiction and reality. The mere thought of a ghost living in my house and sleeping in my bed (rent free), is enough to give me full body goosebumps.

As much as I would like to dismiss the existence of ghosts, and chalk it up to crazy talk – I have to consider the facts. The communication between humans and spirits is real, and it happens more often than one would think.

Shamanism is a term used to refer to a practice, which involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness, in order to properly interact with the spirit world. Shamans – also referred to as “witch doctors” or “mediums” – have access to this spirit world, and usually enter a trance state during each ritual. Surprisingly, the purpose of contacting these spirits is not simply to catch up on old times – but instead, to ask the spirits for help in mending the soul.

You may now be rolling your eyes, thinking what does this “mending of the soul” entail exactly? Contradictory to the magical image conjured by my placement of words, it is not a magic trick.

In fact, Shamanism is taken so seriously in some countries, that it is held equivalent to the significance of any world religion.

A shaman performing this ritual on you, is done for the similar reasons that you would go to your local Church and pray to God – to ask for help. Whether you find yourself physically ill, mentally misguided or simply stressed; a shaman’s communication with spirits is believed to relieve a person of all ailments.

The process through which the communication takes place is where the line is drawn between religion and shamanism. For example: a devout Catholic – who strongly believes in the healing power of prayer – would contradict the very purpose of his or her religion, if he or she agreed to be placed under a trance in order to achieve peace of mind.

Now this is where my understanding of what constitutes a religion becomes weary. If Shamanism is the practice of contacting spirits for the purposes of healing those in need, then why is not considered a religion? Even more importantly, why is it considered more supernatural than Christianity – which contains faith, but no scientific fact.

In order to resolve my confused state, I am going to explore it further, by listing a few of the central beliefs of Shamanism. It should be noted, that these specific beliefs were relayed to me on my  trip, and are only a few of the several beliefs that exist in the variations of Shamanism around the world.

  • Spirits exist and play an important role in individual lives, and human society as a whole.
  • Shamans assist in soul retrieval, as it is believed that part of the human soul is free to leave the body. Meaning, that the shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers. In order to do so, a shaman must first change their state of consciousness, allowing their free soul to travel and retrieve wisdom and lost power.
  • Spirits can be benevolent (like Casper the friendly ghost) or malevolent (think the Sixth Sense type).
  • A shaman has the ability to treat physical and mental sickness caused by malevolent spirits.
  • The shaman can employ trance inducing techniques to allow the participant to go on “vision quests”.
  • The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens and message bearers.
  • The shaman may acquire many spirit guides, who will guide him or her on their travels through the spirit world. The spirit guide is supposed to energize the shaman, enabling him or her to enter the supernatural dimension.

Sounds too good to be true? That is exactly what I thought, until I saw the ritual performed before my very eyes.

It was May 7th, 2012; the volunteers first night in the Amazon jungle. We were welcomed into the community by a shaman ceremony. While our guide was giving us background information on the practice, the shaman was preparing by taking a hallucinogen. Sounds somewhat sketchy, but it is natural and required in order for the shaman to be able to reach an altered state of mind.

He chose one of the volunteer’s to partake in the ritual, and began the ceremony by chanting. Each ceremony was 15 minutes in length and involved the combination of: singing, clapping, the waving of spiritual leaves (as displayed above) and occasional spitting. To be brutally honest, I found myself dozing off at one point. The chanting was loud, but in a soothing way that made me wish I had my own personal shaman at home for those restless nights ahead. Also, it was quite repetitive, as we could not visually see the communication process taking place – although, I am glad that the spirits chose not to grace everyone with their presence.

Once completed, I asked the chosen volunteers how they felt afterwards. They all replied in a positive way – claiming that their minds were cleared of all worries, and that their moods were now happier than before the ceremony began. It could simply be a situation of mind over matter, but I chose to believe that the chanting actually accomplished something more than drowsiness.

The official religion in Ecuador is Catholicism, as the Church still plays an important role in Ecuadorian government and society. You may now have a better understanding of why the Catholic religion and the mythology of Shamanism do not mix  – as taking a hallucinogen to maintain a connection with God, would not be something you would catch the Pope taking part in. However, our guide did expose an interesting Ecuadorian truth:

While the majority of Ecuador’s population is Catholic, many of the practicing Catholics believe and partake in the practice of Shamanism. This is proof that two contradicting systems can co-exist within one country – or more specifically – one individual.

The topic of religion has always been a difficult one to comprehend for me. I am a girl who lives on facts and hard evidence (hence my aspirations to become a journalist) and have a hard time believing in rituals and myths that contain magic and faith. I am a born and raised Catholic, and like to believe that God created the earth I currently live on, and that all my deceased loved ones are smiling down on me from the clouds above. It’s a nice thought – just like it’s a nice thought to believe that talking to spirits will somehow renew one’s soul.

The truth is, I do not know what to believe anymore. The saying goes, that we all must believe in something greater than ourselves in order to get through this journey called life. Who is to say that I can’t take pieces of my religion, combine them with pieces of other religions and follow parts of mythology that interest me as well. Who says that I have to be a follower of one belief, and one belief only? Who says that religion is any truer than a ritual, practice or myth?

You, and only you, have the power to choose what you want to believe in. Don’t fall victim to pressures from family, friends or “the majority” – stay true to your heart and mind, as they will guide you in the right direction.

If shamanism is a practice you are interested in – please only partake in the ceremony with an experienced shaman. Do not trust your neighbor, who claims that he spoke to a spirit last time he was “high on life”, and now feels spiritually cleansed. If you choose to go against my warning, proceed with caution, and become skeptical when he starts engaging in small talk with the spirits.

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