Understanding What Shamanism is by Hillary S. Webb.
Our ancient ancestors recognized that there is more to the world in which we live than our ordinary, everyday mode of consciousness reveals to us. Theirs was a spirituality of animism, the belief that all things, from animals to trees to mountains to the wind and everything in between, have their own innate intelligence and wisdom. Communications with these forces of the unseen world were considered essential for survival. The community therefore looked to certain individuals that are today called “shamans” (typically pronounced SHAW-mans) who could propel themselves out of a habitual way of relating to the world and into altered states of consciousness. In these states, these intelligences would provide the shaman with extra-sensory knowledge and power that could be used to heal the sick, divine the future, locate a missing child — anything that was needed for the well-being of the community or individual.

Shamanic tools and techniques for altering consciousness in this way are still practiced by indigenous people around the planet. Despite having once been dismissed as “superstition” or “trickery,” these same practices are also being embraced by people in the modern world who have experienced first hand their potential for personal and global transformation.For many of us, however, to see reality through the eyes of the shaman may require a radical shift in our consciousness. Although all of us possess these same abilities, most of us are too busy rushing about to engage with the world around us even at the most basic of levels. The shaman, on the other hand, is a master of awareness. A shaman once told me, “If you are a man and you leave the toilet seat up, you can’t be a shaman because being a shaman is about paying attention. If you can’t pay attention to the little things at home, then forget about the rest of it.”

And there is good reason for this. Spirit is subtle. Despite the Hollywood vision we may have of it, at most times guidance does not come in a burst of flames or writing in the sky. Typically, our consciousness only opens to the voice of Spirit when one is fully present in the moment. In order to engage with the world on a level in which magical transformation can occur, the shaman must enter into a pure relationship with it, free from any personal or cultural cliches that keep him or her bound to the limited reality of ordinary consciousness. Having achieved this, the shaman becomes an empty vessel for unlimited knowledge and power to flow into. So how can each of us shift our consciousness in order to experience this “pure relationship” with the world as the shaman does? To do so, we must reclaim our awe, that sense of wonder that we had as children, back when everything was new and we had many more questions than we did answers. In those days, our vision of the world and ourselves was still forming, and we were open to a reality in which all things were possible.

When we wake from a dream and think back on it, many of us try to determine what each element in the dream meant. Perhaps you dreamed of sitting in a Chinese restaurant while a waiter wearing a red tie kept handing you spoons. Upon waking, you might wonder, what did those spoons represent? Why was it a red tie and not a blue one? Each element of the dream becomes an essential piece of a puzzle. So, now, imagine that at this moment you are dreaming. Observe your surroundings as if each element is a part of that dream. Use all your senses. Feel the texture of things. Try to identify the distinct smells that fill up each breath and the sounds that come from the four directions. By viewing reality through the lens of a waking dream, your consciousness shifts to a place in which the world around you becomes alive with new significance. You may notice how much more alert and sensitive your senses become in this state of expanded awareness.

As we increase our connection to the world, we also increase our connection to ourselves. In the stillness of pure relationship, our own inner voice can speak clearly. Of course, to make this authentic connection means we must be willing to face whatever truths about ourselves and the world await us. The desire to expand our consciousness is not one that should be taken lightly. Once we feel called to expand our vision of reality in this way, to accept greater possibilities for the world and ourselves, that desire stays with us, no matter how we try to bury it under our addictions, our habits, our cliches of daily life. By taking that leap of faith and opening up to the world in this way, we can reclaim our awe and, like the shaman, experience a world of unlimited possibility.

Hillary S. Webb is the author of “Exploring Shamanism: Using Ancient Rites to Discover the Unlimited Healing Powers of Cosmos and Consciousness” (New Page Books; 2003; $13.99; www.newpagebooks.com) and the upcoming book Traveling Between the Worlds: Conversations with Contemporary Shamans (to be published in 2004 by Hampton Roads Publishing). Her website is www.hillaryswebb.com.