5 Ways Shamans Acted as the Evolutionary Keepers of Tribal Mental Health
This week I was catching up on my podcasts and heard Tim Ferris Interview a Harvard Educated Ethnobotanist, and Joe Rogan interview a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University to talk about psychedelics and in both instances, neither of these ‘experts’ could answer the question of what a shaman really is.
Which brings me to why I am writing this article. As an initiated shamanic apprentice, Id like to clear things up!
A lot of people’s first introduction into the world of shamanism has been through the world of psychedelics, and while some shamans do use psychedelics, it is not their main role. Many of the ‘shamans’ people work with using ayahuasca are actually curanderos or vegitalistas, who are actually herbalists and not shamans.
Some shamans are curanderos use herbs, but not all herbalists are shamans.
To become a shaman, one must be called; because if it were a choice, absolutely no one would sign up to be a shaman. I can tell you this from experience that living the life of a shaman is one of the most difficult paths that you can be assigned. I tried to avoid the calling, but avoiding it will actually only make you sick and can even kill you.
Shamans are known as the ‘wounded healers’, because it is only through the experience of healing their own wounds are they able to help others.
Imagine if the training to become a doctor was having to experience every single disease that you were going to treat. Cancer, heart disease, broken bones, diabetes, you were only allowed to treat the diseases that you yourself have been through and healed, and that was your teaching- through experience.
Would you become a doctor then? That's what being a shaman is like. We have to go through the experience of the illnesses we are going to treat in order to be able to help others.
I view this as kind of like God’s safety measure for shamans, because as you know so many ‘spiritual’ healers & leaders get caught up in their egos and end up abusing their followers & patients. I only have to point to the catholic church's history of molesting young boys, or the many incidences of rape when following yogis or guru’s to prove my point.
With great power comes great responsibility, and for the shaman, life brings you to the brink of your own death over and over to humble the fuck out of you and cause you so much suffering that you would never abuse the power given to you to cause suffering to another human being. This is why no one wants to be a shaman. It fucking hurts.
Nevertheless, Shamans have existed in virtually every culture in the world. It happens as a gene expression carried in the DNA of the healer's lineage. In order to be called to shamanism, you must have a shaman in your ancestry.
The call of the shaman happens with an incurable illness of the body and/or mind that occurs and resists all other treatment except for spiritual healing.
For me, my call (or creative illness as Carl Jung put it after he himself went through a shamanic initiation, which he writes about in his essay ‘Confrontation with the unconscious’) happened in 2014, when my shamanic ancestors took possession of my body and kept me in a trance, in a state of epic hallucinations for 40 days, where the ghosts of Albert Einstein and Nelson Mandela came to me and explained the secrets of the Universe. During those forty days, I did not eat, I did not sleep and I fought a psychic battle against the embodied evil of our collective unconscious mind.
After my victory, I ended up in the psychiatric ward of an L.A hospital. The doctors told me I had a psychotic break, but fortunately, I met a Native American Jungian Psychologist who recognized what happened as a shamanic initiation. (You can read about my experience in my new memoir ‘The Big Dream; My Terrifyingly Beautiful Shamanic Initiation into the Arts’).
So for the last six years, I have been a shamanic apprentice learning under various Zulu shamans (who are called Sangoma in my ancestral traditions) and Native Canadian medicine women on the land where I was born.
I have learned that shamans are a necessity in the evolution of the human species, which is why the gene expression is carried in the DNA, and why every single culture has them.
Shamans exist as a bridge between the material world and the spirit world. We are taught the art of healing from our ancestors, whom we communicate within the spirit world.
Our ancestors are not divine, and when we communicate with them, it is not an act of worship. It is an act of communication. Our ancestors live inside our DNA, and science is finally catching up with this ancient spiritual knowledge. The study of epigenetics shows that life experience (most especially trauma) is passed down through our DNA.
In tribal life, shamans acted as leaders, with Chiefs coming in only to lead wars.
It was the shaman's job to keep the spiritual and mental health of their tribes safe. They did this in a variety of ways, but I'd like to give you 5 fundamental ways Shamans Kept the Mental Health of their Tribes thriving.
1.) Shamans organized the coming of age rites: When a boy reached puberty and started to show signs that he was ready to become a man, the shaman would organize his coming of age rites to mark the psychic occasion of moving from child-psychology into adult-psychology. Through thousands of years of practice, it was shown that without this significant marker in a male's experience, the self-centered attitude of childhood would never mature and would cause huge problems in that man's life based on his stunted state of mental maturity.
When the boy was deemed ready, the shaman would organize with the other adult men and elders of the tribe to ‘kidnap’ the boy from his mother. The mother would be in on the event and would pretend to be horrified at what was happening. (This separation from the mother was essential in breaking the psychological bond that would have the man believe that his mother (or all women) existed only to serve him ) The elders and adult men would then take the boy away to be put through a series of trials that would require the boy to endure pain, face his fears and come to recognize the true strength of his spirit. He would then return home to a celebration with his family and the entire tribe who now recognized him as a man.
Each shamanic culture has a rendition of this kind of coming of age rite but varies from culture to culture on the specifics.
For women, their initiation didn’t have to be planned because it was something that happened to them; they got their menstrual periods. When this happened, the girl would be brought into a ‘red tent’, which was a place where the other adult women and female elders would gather, and for three months the girl would be educated on the cycles and rhythms of being a woman. She was taught about the phases of her menstrual cycle that coincided with the production and cessation of certain hormones which would bring a certain kind of essence to the woman at each phase of her cycle. They were taught the feminine mysteries, myths, and fairytales essential for her psychological development and understanding of the life/death cycle, and was brought into the sisterhood with the other women of their tribe.
These rituals were essential for the mental health of the tribe and we only have to look at our society today to recognize the repercussions of no longer performing these rites. (ahem..the patriarchy!! Which is filled with men who are stuck inside their child psychologies and never had the break from their mother that would stop them from thinking they own her and therefore have the right to own other women)
Men need these rituals so bad that they are now turning to organizations like the ku klux klan who have rituals, rights, elders, myths and a system of brotherhood to get their fix. Young men, desperate for these rites that are needed by their DNA in order to mature often find themselves hazing one another at college or on sports teams as a form of initiation, but without the knowledge of shamanic purpose, they are causing serious trauma to each other.
Women need to hear stories of other women's sexuality, it lights up our souls. A woman's sexual journey is her life story and her connection to her creativity & vitality. Without knowing the four phases of the menstrual cycle (ovulation, pre-menstruation, menstruation, and pre-ovulation) they will not understand the difference of essence and power that each phase gives to them and they might start thinking they are insane and have four different versions of themselves inside. Being taught of the mysteries of the woman helps bring her into acceptance and celebration of herself which is essential for mental health.
2.) Shamans held ritual dance & musical performances that provided catharsis, emotional release, and integration. Science is finally catching up with the ancient wisdom of shamans and realizing that our feelings are deeply tied to our somatic experiences and that traumatic experiences get held in the body. In order to process and move through emotions, we need bodywork and healthy relations. Shamans taught dances to their tribe that came from a deep understanding of the relationship between body and emotion.
Without dance and emotional catharsis, our feelings can get trapped in our bodies and cause us to be trapped in emotional states or moods which caused people to behave in ways that had nothing to do with the present moment. Feelings are meant to be felt, they are meant to come and go. They are one with what happens at the moment.
Shamans understood that feelings were our body's intelligence and that they were meant to tell us something. To honor those emotions through dance and music is to create solid mental health.
3.) Shamans Performed Ceremonies Based on the Needs of the Tribe. Shamans have always understood that the foundation of mental health lies in the quality of our relations, and like rituals, the need for ceremony is cooked into the very fabric of our beings. The shamanic ceremony goes well beyond our modern practices of birthday parties, funerals or weddings. Ceremony was a deliberate act performed to bring its participants into communion with the sacred.
For instance, if something tragic happened within the tribe and the people were feeling low about it, a shaman might perform a ceremony that would invoke the spirit or essence of love and resilience that the tribe needs at that moment. The ceremony’s intention would be clear, stories & myths would be told that echo the lessons that could be learned and integrated with the experience of said tragedy. The shaman would create a safe container for the people to express and share their grief. They would commune with each other and with the sacred to process the experience of tragedy and honor what has been lost and learned. Processing emotions together, expressing feelings, being seen and invoking a higher power are all major contributors to mental health wellness!
4.) Shamans were Spiritual Guides Shamans and elders would notice the gifts and talents of their tribespeople and would guide them into a life aligned with their purpose. In order to live our divine purpose, we must be filled with personal power and self-esteem because life is hard! And staying on track in our purpose is hard and filled with obstacles.
Shamans offered counseling, dream interpretation, and communication with the ancestors that would guide a person on their spiritual journey (or purpose-journey). They would educate them on the soulful life and help keep their egos at bay that would stand in the way of them living authentically. Living your own unique purpose based on giving away the innate gifts and talents you were given at birth is essential for thriving mental health.
5.) Shamans were Transcendant Artists Shamans understood that our spiritual journey is one of consciousness and that we can lift someone into higher states of consciousness through the spirit that we manifest on Earth through art.
Art was a way of bottling transcendence, and experiencing art was like being baptized in that spirit. Shamans would enter into altered states of consciousness where they entered into the spirit realm and brought back images, songs & dances & genius ideas that came directly from source.
These images, stories, songs that were divined and filled with truth were meant to speak directly to the soul needs of the tribe. Sometimes tribes would fall into funks, and shamanic art would come forth to disturb the status quo and remind everyone of the divine truths of life.
Human beings need to be filled with wonder, with inspiration, and their deep subconscious needs to be touched and acknowledged. Inspiration and vitality of spirit are so good for your mental health!
I hope this article has given you a better understanding of what a shaman is and how you might be able to incorporate some shamanic practices into your mental-health regime.
Thank you for joining me here.
To purchase a copy of my book, ‘The Big Dream; My Terrifyingly Beautiful Shamanic Initiation into the Arts’ please visit www.TheBigDreamBook.com