At its core, no matter what culture we are talking about, shamanism is working with spirit entities. I use the term spirit for lack of a better word. For me, the word brings up thoughts of ghosts, or angels or demons. But this is because of its use in the Christian culture in which I was brought up. However, my understanding of spirit has evolved. For me, spirit now describes any being or structure that is outside of spectrum of vibrations that our physical senses or any of our constructed tools can perceive.
Scientists believe that the majority of energy in the universe is undetectable, but still exists. They call this “dark matter” or “dark energy”. Some estimates say that dark matter holds a 6 to 1 ratio over “regular” matter. We are literally surrounded by matter and energy we cannot see or measure.
A shaman is someone who has learned to perceive and interact with things that we cannot know through physical observation.
The answer to this varies from culture to culture, tradition to tradition. So to understand how, we should look for things in common. Throughout history, one similar thread of shamanic practice involves grave sickness or near-death trauma.
Another similar trait is entering the “trance state”.
Sickness and trauma
With some serious illness or trauma, the brain is temporarily blocked from receiving information from the nervous system. But the brain craves input so it is constantly looking for any type of stimulation.
I believe our primary consciousness exists in the “spirit” world, or that matter and energy that we cannot detect as physical beings. We are all here, in the physical world of our own accord. That consciousness is our “spirit sense” here. It is bound to us, but not part of the physical body.
I sometimes call it our “WiFi” sense. The nervous system and our sensory organs represent the wired senses. This is sensory input that is wired directly into our brains. The spirit sense is a reminder of our true selves.
The brain, when void of sensory input, can receive input from this external source, our spirit sense. This is something I cannot confirm through scientific knowledge. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For most of our modern human history, we were not aware of electrons or quantum particles. But they exist and eventually we created tools that could allow us to observe them.
The data coming to our brain from the spirit sense is wholly unfamiliar to it, so like a newborn observing the world, much of it doesn’t make any sense in the beginning. But as we spend more time with that sense, our brains start to assign familiar shapes to things. For example: native shamans from around the world often interact with “spirit animals”. These spirits appear to them as bear, wolf, boar, etc. because that is how our brains make sense of them. The information coming to the visual processing part of the brain is interpreted based on prior experiences.
Basically, this entity makes me feel like something I associate with bear, so this must be some sort of bear beast. Even though the spirit being isn’t actually a bear, we have no other frame of reference to identify it. It’s similar to when remote tribal people, who are not exposed to modern technology, try to describe planes and other vehicles. A plane could be a giant eagle. A jeep might be a giant boar.
The trance state
The trance state is a mental state where we lull the brain. The repetition of chants, or drumming or spinning in place cause the brain to seek out something more patterned. If it has previously tuned into the spirit sense, it will “listen” for those vibrations.
The important take from this is: we all are connected to spirit. We all have a spirit sense. We all have the ability to learn how to tap into that. And we don’t have to suffer trauma and sickness to become aware. We only need to train our brains to be able to tune in. In many shamanic traditions, this is accomplished through the use of various plants and fungi in conjunction with trance inducing activities like drumming.
Why are we here?
If we are really some other being that exists outside of the physical body, why are we in a physical body?
This is a question of motive. What is there to gain from it? My theory is that this rare form of matter (physical matter) only makes up 5% of the matter in the universe. It offers unique experiences that are just not found in the more common spirit realm.
Perhaps many of the experiences we have here in the physical matter can only be experienced as a physical being: pain, pleasure, hunger, emotion.
We are here to learn and have fun. That’s it.
One way I like to describe it is through a movie theater analogy. Imagine there is a gigantic movie complex. Each movie is a set of experiences, or lives. When we are sitting in the theater, watching it, we try to forget who we really are, and enjoy the emotions and experiences offered by the movie.
Occasionally, something jars us from the illusion on the screen and we remember we’re sitting in a theater, with others like us. We can watch the movie and be aware that we are watching the movie. I think, even for people who aren’t directly aware of both worlds, there is often a sense that there’s “something more”. Even without religious associations, many feel there is an invisible world out there. They can’t see it with their eyes, but they sense it.
This can also explain why some of us have “extra sensory perceptions” sometimes. We sometimes call this “instinct” or “gut feelings”. These could be brief moments of the brain becoming aware of information coming from our spirit sense.
What is the value of shamanism?
There is a difference between being a shaman and living a shamanic lifestyle. A shaman is someone who uses their ability to perceive what others cannot to provide guidance and spiritual healing. Shamanic healing is the restoration of the spirit link that connects us to the physical through calling on the assistance of spirit entities. This is sometimes called “soul retrieval”. Basically, our connection to the spirit world naturally erodes as we move through the physical world, although traumatic experiences can accelerate that. Spirit entities can strengthen that bond.
A shamanic lifestyle is one that involves awareness of and interactions with the spirit world for self-improvement and to have advantage that allows them to protect others or overcome obstacles.