My Response to DIY Shamanism

A dynamic I see often brought up in shamanism forums is the projection that shamanism is and should be DIY, or it’s not authentic. (Ranting ahead.)

Somewhere along the way modern shamanism internalized the idea that the shamanic path is done alone. Whether it’s that you can read it in a book, take a correspondence class, some misplaced notion of suffering for your art, or that shamanism is territorial and we don’t play well with others, the notion that we are solitary and should strive to be so has stuck.

And it’s wrong.

Information vs Transformation: Why You Can't Learn Shamanism from a Book. S. Kelley Harrell, Soul Intent Arts
A lot of that blame falls on the New Age emphasis of self-healing. If you believe that shamanism is based in self-healing, journeying, and hanging out with Spirit Guides, read on.

(And you’re wrong.)

Is the path of the shaman isolating? Yeah. Is it lonely? Hells yes. But guess what–so is every pursuit you will ever undertake to better yourself, to heal. This isn’t the case with just shamanism; it’s the plight of being human. We really are islands to ourselves. No one else walks our paths. No one knows what we’ve seen, let alone how it’s impacted us.

Yet, there’s a big difference between the isolating experience that is being the human on the path of improvement, and the shaman on the path between worlds, and that difference is the Big Initiation.  No matter what brought you to shamanism or what you do to stay sane on its path, there will be at least one Big Initiation. It will gut you. It won’t look like your picture of shamanism when it’s happening. It will look like death, grief, anger, resentment, and pain, all of which demands that you change to stay alive. The catch is, it’s the job of the shaman to remember the truth of Initiation when it’s happening, despite appearances and feelings. It’s the job of the shaman to see it through to closure that brings about a changed life view.

And therein lies the rub. This is where shamanism ceases to be a solo sport. When we complete that Big Initiation, we are no longer in the sandbox. We’re taking part in a greater arena that started at the dawn of time and transcends location, ethnicity, culture, gender, species, or element. When you step across that finish line, you have entered an arena of the collective, in which you are part of The Community.

That changed world view, that inability to return to life the same, is your diploma. It’s the certification that you are part of a group that is dedicated to the solution, and you have pledged fealty to show up for that group and do what you have been called to fulfill. Because guess what? Your calling isn’t just yours. It’s yours to carry out, but when you finish that Initiation, there’s a comma at end of that calling, and after it reads “, for every being.” Your calling isn’t something you do for personal fulfillment. You do it because it brings positive change for everyone, which by default means you are beholden to community. When you truly make the connection of the enormity of your calling, you realize you can’t do it alone. You need skills, coping methods, opportunity. Nothing about it is DIY.

What connects every island is the community brought by the water, and that’s the part modern shamanism is missing.

In my first formal shamanism class, it was put forward to me that we should seek to be islands. It was put to me as no one can do our work for us. We should stake our territories, take on the mantle of our Spirit Allies, buckle down, and persevere in that work like we’re being chased, with no request or expectation of help except from our Spirit Allies. Because they are king, right? Or Oak, or Odin, or Lightning. They know everything, and through them and their wisdom our work is assured. What other resources would we need?

Likewise, I was told that ancient shamans were territorial. They held the space for their own tribe, and no extra. Regional shamans only ever came together when one of them or their tribes was in distress. When the teacher said that, every student’s face (including mine) gleamed as we took that shit to heart like, self-appointed spokespersons for some Dances with Wolves-esque spiritual disenfranchisement dilemma.

"Every initiation reaches a point of crisis, by design." #whatitiswednesday #intentionalinsights by S. Kelley Harrell, Soul Intent Arts, Fuquay, NC Photo by SKHFinally, the endorsement to reign supreme. “For the low price of $49.99, you too, can be The Shaman!” And why not? Ultimately, it reinforces every white privilege component of New Age teaching. It’s one more place to take license and assert authority where there is none. Or is there? Maybe it came long before we were on this land. Another post…

The reality is, it’s really hard to hold space for more than you’re capable of holding space, which means: one tribe. One animistic community, including all of its animals, trees, elements, Land Elders, people, memories, legacies, lineages, Ancestors… You get my point. There’s a lot going on in an animistic community. More than meets the eye?

The 411 on DIY Shamanism is it’s wishful thinking. In traditional cultures, the entire culture is shamanic. While there is only one person functioning in the role of shaman, that person is situated among a group of others already in agreement about their shared experience of Between. The shaman is merely the conduit for a relationship that’s not just already set up, but been handed down for generations. While it may look like ancient shamans were territorial and only hung out together in emergencies, it’s because they understood the value of one shaman holding that space deeply intimately, for one community, and doing it so well that when they did need to come together under duress, the components were already in place for their work to generate healthy resolutions. The gods were already appeased. They were already in relationship with the elements. All that was needed was to do the work at hand.

We have nothing like this in the west.  Animistic tradition isn’t a thing, thus, neither is totemic legacy. We do not have the relationships in place for our personal community to show up ready for service to the collective one. These lacks epitomize our cultural endorsement of the self-path, of isolation.

This omission is a modern western issue. This is a ‘people-transplanted-from-other-lands-and-previously-animistic-cultures- who-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-themselves-now’ issue. Stop projecting it onto ancient and traditional shamanism like it’s a badge or justification to cowboy your own suffering, then call it a practice. Traditional shamans that I’ve worked with and call upon as peers have an entirely inclusive experience of the ‘finding our own path’ phenomenon. It’s your path, within the tribe.

We need to stop comparing our path of shamanism to some romanticization of that of traditional shamans.We need to stop perpetuating our masochism of modern shamanism as some spiritual homage and anthem to the traditional path. First, it’s racist. Second, it’s privileged bullshit. Third, it’s backhanded appropriation. And fourth, it’s not even accurate.

You most likely did find shamanism alone, but you don’t stay on its path well, alone, so stop using the lone wolf/special snowflake projection to justify not working with a modern shaman.

Initiation - Soul Intent ArtsI can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked for a reference to a “real” shaman, or a reference of a credible indigenous person to work with.  First of all, asking of either question–again–> racist.

Second, you live here, now. If you’re not okay with the spiritual teachings of where you stand, maybe there’s a bigger personal issue playing out. If you can’t find the animistic community or spiritual tradition of where you stand… that’s because it’s not DIY.

Which brings me to third, your personal crisis doesn’t leave you inherently knowing how to thread the needle that secures it to shamanhood. Wake up call: it doesn’t for any of us who weren’t born into a shamanic tradition. Because you don’t know doesn’t make you special. Because you had to stumble toward calling alone doesn’t mean you have to actually reinvent any wheels. We’re not at Modern Shamanism 1.0 anymore. We are not and will never be traditional shamans. It’s not a goal, and shouldn’t be. Let them do them. They’re doing a great job of it. You be you, where you are, here, now, among. There are valuable, ethical, skilled modern shamans, and it’s time to stop acting like there aren’t.

And honestly, given the above,  why would a “real,” indigenous shaman want to work with you?

I always tell everyone who asks such, “Find a mentor.” Short, and sweet. Not because I want your money, but because it’s the freaking truth. You don’t work with a mentor because you need someone to tell you what you should do. You work with one so that you can cope at the highest of your ability while you’re doing the work you were called to do. Being a shaman is about living the full life Between, and to do that without losing your grounding in the mundane is the greatest challenge of the path.

I accomplish that by providing the people I mentor with instruction in their work AND a community of peers, those who are going through the work and those who have completed it and sit as elders, because at the end of the day your spirit guides don’t really care about your sanity. They don’t care if your bills are paid. They care about shit getting done, and the shit that hasn’t gotten done for centuries.

That backlogue doesn’t get done alone. The suggestion that it does is one of the biggest bypasses in modern shamanism. The greater work of shamanism isn’t in our precious personal paths, but in how those paths connect to do the bigger collective work we’re all called to do, together. Because that’s the real job, we, as a collective, haven’t been able to break through the self-help ceiling, yet.

In short:

  • No, shamanism isn’t about self-healing. It starts with self-healing because we in the west are behind the bell curve on dealing with our shit (see above discussion of not being situated in a shamanic community, etc).  We have amassed personal and collective trauma that requires being worked through before we can get to the work of The Shaman.
  • No, shamanism isn’t about journeying, or whatever it is you do to access trance (because not every shaman journeys). That’s just the avenue through which we connect with Spirit Allies that help us to do the work in the mundane, which is what shamanism is about.
  • And finally, no we don’t hang out with Spirit Guides. They hang out with us. They’re not here to help us. They’re here to work through us to aid life in the Seen and the Unseen. They often can’t do that effectively  because of the above note on amassed trauma.

Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place. Rumi - Photo by S. K Harrell, Soul Intent ArtsUltimately what’s missing most in the current state of modern shamanism is community. It’s the one thing I hear most from shamans, practitioners, students, seekers. People. We need people. We need each other. And to forget that part, to omit each other as part of animism is to contribute further to the dysfunctional idea that we’re meant to do this DIY. If you’re more comfortable with the idea of your animistic community being trees, and Brown Bear, than you are with it being people, you need to revisit your definition of othering. If you think shamanism taught to you by a person of color makes it more valid, you need to revisit your concept of racism.

That’s my response to DIY Shamanism: The Beginner.

My response to DIY Shamanism: The Shaman is get involved. I know you got here, alone.  There were no elders for us. I get that you were likely ostracized as a result of claiming your calling, and had no resources for coping with that. You don’t have do it alone, anymore, and from my heart to yours, stop trying to. It hurts us all.

To those already on the path continuing to sit back and insist you’re still in that muck, that you have nothing to offer a community of peers, is bypass. Insisting you’re still a student and need to listen and learn, even though you’ve been practicing for years, is avoidance. You don’t have to know it all to be involved, and to realize that involvement is part of your job.  We will always have more to learn. We learn it from each other, as we work together.

The reality is, part of the role of shaman is to support other shamans. It’s to cheerlead, aid, hold space for, and ride in like the freaking wind when needed, for your fellow shamans. And your call for support isn’t just for you, either. It’s for the footprint on the ground that you represent. It’s for the Nature Spirits of your region, when their forests are burning, the floods are rising, the crops are failing, the kids are being gunned down in schools. Yes, you’re their human ambassador, but you’re not supposed to have to hold that space alone. Moreover, you were never expected to. The hold up is you realizing that fact.

And guess what? Your Nature Spirits know this. They know what your role is and that you’re not doing it, because they are already connected into the greater animistic network of the world–and beyond. They’re waiting for you to show up fully for your local animistic community, so that you can  actively and with intention do the same for the planet.

And as a modern shaman who has learned it the hard way, I can tell you with absolute certainty that your guides won’t wait forever.

I love you.

Keep doing what you do, but stop acting like you have to do it alone.

Because you don’t.

You never did.

If you want to work with me, click the links. Write the email. I’m happy to talk with you about what you need to fulfill your calling well, in community. Above all, for the passion and devotion of your path, and the ferocity and craving of your calling, by all means get moving.

We need you.

#beyourcommunity