Using the Words Shaman and Shamanism
by Kathleen Dunbar
What do we name ourselves as practitioners of archetypal and energetic healing? I use the words shaman and shamanism to refer to myself and my healing practice. These are ancient words for an even older practice that spans virtually all the epochs of human existence. I want to be sensitive to the culture that offers these specific words. I want to be true to the universality of healing practices and use a word that is woven into the web of life. I’ve given a lot of thought to my personal decision, and thought I would share my perspective.
The specific forms of healing I have chosen to learn draw from healing practices that are archetypal rather than tribe-specific. I believe that healing and medicine arise both from human experience, and from culturally specific practices (which are also human, of course, but integrally woven into a specific peoples’ lives and stories). Culturally specific practices need to be honored and used only where gifted by a healer from that culture.
After a great deal of thought I have chosen to continue to use the word shaman as a descriptor. I have had transpersonal experiences since I was a young child that have lead me specifically to be called to this path and fulfill this calling, and which I honor by engaging in them. On a gut level this word has always resonated with me. Indeed, it is this word that called me to dive in and set upon this path a long time ago in a bookstore where I found Joan Halifax’s book Shamanic Voices calling out to me from the shelf.
The word shaman comes from the Tungus-speaking peoples of Siberia. This word began to come into common parlance in the western world in the 1960s when Mircea Iliade and other anthropologists described their observations of the Tungus people’s spiritual and healing practices. There began to be an interest in the western world for healing methods that were based upon ancient—and inherently human—practices that intertwine the human psyche, archetypes, stewardship of the planet, and “non-ordinary” states of consciousness. Personally, it feels to me that a magical door opened in Siberia to a world wracked by two wars that had engulfed the planet and that was hungering for raised consciousness.
I feel that a shaman or medicine person is one who continues to practice ways to be able to recognize and move the ego aside in order to access transpersonal states for the benefit of healing. In these states the shaman offers him or herself up to Spirit to be guided in healing practices for a particular client and for community. I believe that the healing a client wants and is ready for is available to them, often on a not-so-conscious level, but one that their spirit is prepared for. I am the midwife that helps that birth-into-new-being take place, but ultimately they are the one doing the work, and having to continue to do the work once they go home.
I don’t know why this oddball gift was given to me! But it was, and I honor Spirit and my own higher being by using it to the best of my ability. Recently someone asked why I use the word shaman and practice shamanism if I am not an indigenous person. I want to honor the cultural practices of peoples by not claiming them and using them. I also want to honor what has been given to my spirit and heart and hands to do.
Medicine woman, midwife of the spirit, healer—these could be names I use (and sometimes I do call myself a Medicine Auntie) but I prefer the word shaman. I have my particular offerings in that regard, which are specific. It would be weird to me for a doctor not to want to call him or herself a doctor. I feel it appropriate to name myself as something and own that, while understanding my specialties and limitations (ie., when to refer to others with different specialities).
I thank the Tungus people for this word shaman, and no, I have not personally asked them if I could use this word that is probably pretty sacred to them. I want to continually understand my blinders regarding privilege. And, in a way that I can’t really put into words, that is the word that Spirit wants me to use.
I shared my thoughts with one of my dear shaman mentors, Jon Rasmussen, or Shaman Jon. The comment he added to my thoughts was really helpful for me, and clearly put into words what I have been feeling. I will include it here. Jon says,
“There is a word or set of words in every language to describe shaman, just as there is a word in every language for Soul, spirit, God, etc. And at the same time, since humanity is now such a global village, it makes sense to use a single word, and I feel there is no better choice at this point than shaman. Even my Q'ero teachers (who in Quechua would call themselves paqo for men, and laika for women) refer to themselves now with the word ‘shaman’ because of its accepted universality. I still have a note with Don Francisco's phone number which he gave me where he wrote, ‘Francisco, Chaman Qeror.’ The people of Tungus can be proud that we consider the word in their language to represent that role across the globe.”
So it is in the spirit of universality, and with respect to the Tungus people, and to our huge global village, that I dedicate my practice as a shaman.
If you’d like to learn more about my healing practice, you can click this link: kathleendunbar.net