Who are you really anyway?
I have been reading a lot about the concept of identifying as 'shaman' of late - how difficult it can be for some to comfortably identify as a shaman when you are aware of the "if you call yourself a shaman you are not a shaman" challenge that often comes up. And it is interesting how this word is so close to sham and shame. As if taking something away or adding to its most purest form can completely give it another identity.
Not an easy topic to address, I have none the less been wanting to (or rather feel called to) talk about this for some time - so here goes.
My position, on this path, is to, at all times, have the intention to 'do no harm', and if calling yourself a shaman in some way offends those people who have been traditionally trained in this art, then one may do well to step back and accept that there may be another way to walk the world and still feel authentic in how you do, and are seen to do, that.
What I have come to know and understand is that it is impossible for most people not brought up in traditional ways to understand the depths of the roles played out in traditional societies. This became very clear to me when I went with a group of people to talk with Credo Muttawa, a shaman from South Africa. He told us that he fasts for days before giving a healing to someone. He transported water from the ocean hundreds of miles away to use in the healing process. Once this water would have been carried across the desert by hand. The shaman's apprentice, a well educated woman, walked on her knees with her head bowed and did not speak while in the presence of her teacher. The traditional ways, and the use of terms that define then, need to be respected and an effort made to understand the perspective of the people who protect and honor those ways. There are many, including myself in early days, who have westernised the word 'shaman' without truly understanding it. To try to gain some perspective, you can imagine how people who have studied to obtain their PhD or medical degree for 8, 9, 10 or more years to be able to call themselves 'doctor' would feel if those who felt they had the right to do so, because of their self-perceived level of knowledge and experience, began to use Dr before their name. You would not get away with it for long!
The crazy thing is - that traditional shamans (and contemporary doctors of medicine and philosophy) with all their wisdom and knowledge, pass into the next world - with many of them no doubt coming back into this existence and walking the shamanic path once more where they must once again take the steps of waking up to what lies within, and for some that is easier than others. Using the word 'elder' carries much the same story. I am staggered at how many 'young elders', wise far beyond their years, I come across in circles I sit in. And we might also hear similar stories around the vibration of the word 'healer'. The wisdom held in multidimensional worlds is profound and the power of the human psyche to tap into those worlds, lift the veils and remember what they once new, is yet to be discovered.
There is no doubt that shamanism, and its ancient wisdom, is really becoming a popular movement, and is growing all the time - it is its time to resurface and to more freely 'do its thing' in a more modern world (excuse my simplification - my brain has been overworked today). Once, a shaman could only be found amongst traditional tribal peoples (all modern cultures and societies were once ancient so indeed a shaman or the equivalent may well have been found everywhere in some form or other). In some societies and cultures the 'shaman' has managed to survive in his or her pure form which is incredible. However, the archetypal, universal energy of 'shaman' is something that can be found always in the collective unconscious, as can be the archetypal role of mother, father, sister, brother, healer, priestess, priest, king, queen, elder and so on.
Personally, I think it is a matter of time before we can use the world 'shaman' respectfully if one is called to walk this path. It seems reasonable to say urban-neo shamans will most likely never be the same (not to infer less than) in their level of skills and knowledge as traditional shamans - in how they view the world - or how they manage their craft. Just as we can say mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers play out different stories and roles in modern times to what they once traditionally did. There has been cultural integration, growth and change in all of evolution, and this will continue.
In this day and age we are often asked to define who we are and what we do - and it is important to know this for yourself. I suggest if you are called to call yourself 'shaman' then you think about adding something to it - like neo or urban or contemporary - or 'shamanic practitioner' so you are making room for respect for those who are experts in this field, and who have had the rites handed down to them by their earthly teachers and ancient ones, and at the same time, you are clearly stating that shamanism is the practice you have chosen to guide your life and profession. This is not about being afraid of what others think of you, but rather considering others who have managed , despite the odds, to hold on to traditions that are thousands of years old, who have had to hide them for fear of them being condemned, misused and misunderstood by others.
At the same time, what role or 'way' you choose to identify with is a matter of personal choice of course. You may well have wakened up to 'shaman' energy, called and guided by Spirit to walk authentically in your truth, with the support of a contemporary tribe around you who understand and respect you in the role you choose to identify with. I suggest if you feel comfortable walking the shoes of shamanism in an open and authentic way, then listen to your own call and inner truth. I am not here to say there is one way to walk this way. But I am here to share my own ethos of 'intend to do no harm' - to yourself and others.
And then - be aware that others may openly call you shaman even though you don't do this yourself, or they may indeed shame you if you do call yourself this - and then what do you do? Do you deny something intrinsic inside of you to please others, or deny the other person the freedom to see you how they see you? Or do you sit with them, and explain your take and the take of critics on it all, and listen to why they have been so offended by your doing this? Or do you smile at your ego at wanting to deny or defend, and just be at peace and let it be as it is? When is the ego at play anyway - in your calling yourself shaman and feeling ok with that, or calling yourself shaman and being ashamed and afraid of that? Or not calling yourself shaman for fear of judgment (and indeed in some cases punishment) and pushing down a deeper knowing that you have walked the path many times - and never in those times had to identify yourself as others did that for you, within a traditional tribal setting?
There are many questions and answers to be considered around identity and authenticity on this path.
Truth be known and said, I have personally both identified with and denied, at some point or other, many 'labels' that seem to fit with who I have felt I am at the time. I have both struggled and, in quieter more private moments, been at ease with the energy that is projected by identifying with these roles. But, inside of myself, most of the time, I think of myself as being a simple ‘earthwoman’ called to service within her communities - or perhaps I am being a little shy of the truth here. This, below, is how I think of myself when I introduce myself to others who understand what this means, and when I need to remind myself to walk in my strength and truth the Mea Hui Way (Mea Hui is the 2nd way - of The 8 Ways - how do you introduce yourself to the world?):
"I am Mountain Dwelling Earthwoman, daughter of the Earth and Sky, sister of the Wind - Woman Who Walks with Bulls, Runs (barefoot) with Wolves, and Flies with Eagles. Born fifth generation within this country, I am 'woman of the land'. Scottish, earth(wo)man blood, along with healing waters of the river Dee, runs through my veins on both sides of my family, and my birth-name, Heather, honours the lands of my distant Ancestors. I was born into (from) the rich, black-soil plains of Kamilaroi (Gamilaroi) country near the river Mehi. I am daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, aunt, mentor, walker and teacher of the shamanic way, woman, lover, ceremonial woman, healing energy holder, artist, scribe, and friend. I am all of this and so much more".
What say you?
Further reading and reference to the word 'neo shaman' can be found in the academic text by Adam J. Rock and Stanley Krippner (2011, Demystifying the Shaman).