Friday, February 17, 2012

Zoë Brân - The Role of a Shaman in Contemporary Western Society

I spent several years studying shamanism when I was an undergrad and grad student (and for a while after that) - most of what I studied (aside from one shaman living in New Mexico, and some near recent work with the Huichol in Mexico) was historic accounts, with very little on how traditional shamanic practitioners are navigating the world today.

This article from Resurgence Magazine provides that perspective. Zoë Brân is a shamanic practitioner, teacher and writer. Her practice specializes in creativity and all aspects of personal development, including preparation for death. Zoë teaches courses and has a private shamanic practice in London.

Bringing Heaven to Earth

Zoë Brân describes the role of a shaman in contemporary Western society.

Shamans seem to be increasingly visible these days: in mainstream newspapers, on the shelves of conventional booksellers, in children’s TV shows, and even on Radio 4. Shortly before the recent royal wedding The Sun newspaper got in touch and asked me to perform a “Shamanic Sun Dance” to celebrate the event. I declined. However, despite, or maybe because of, increasing media attention it’s not always easy to discover what shamanism really is and what it can offer us in the 21st century.

Ask any passer-by on any street to describe shamanism, and the result will probably be a blank stare. Most people are surprised to learn that shamanism is not a religion but the oldest spiritual and problem-solving technology on the planet. Even more surprising is the discovery that it’s the precursor to most major world religions, including the Judaeo-Christian and Buddhist traditions, and that it has been practised on every inhabited continent on Earth for at least 40,000 years and possibly very much longer. Historically, shamanism was a significant survival tool of prehistoric humans. Our hunter-gatherer forebears decorated the stone walls of caves and cliffs around the world with carved and painted images drawn directly from shamanic experience. We no longer live in caves or in very small communities whose members are all known to us. Most of us live far longer, healthier lives than our ancient ancestors, but the part of us that is capable of fearing the dark and asking for help from things unseen hasn’t changed in almost a quarter of a million years. What made the uncertain lives of prehistoric people easier still works today because, although the world may have changed, fundamentally we have not.

Ask what a shaman is, and the question may evoke a few words about Native American ‘medicine men’ or perhaps the words ‘witch doctor’. In fact, what a shaman is and does is simply explained. In the Siberian Tungus language from which it originates, shaman means ‘the one who sees’ or ‘the one who knows’ and refers to a person capable of making a ‘journey’ to the world of spirit while in an altered state of consciousness in order to meet and work with personal spirit helpers and teachers. What the shaman ‘sees’ and what she or he ‘knows’ during this experience of meeting with spirit is that there is no separation between anything that is: no separation between me writing and you reading these words, between a dog and cat, between life and death, between this apparently material reality and the non-material realities of the spirit worlds. This idea of ‘oneness’ is common currency in contemporary culture and is increasingly given credence by certain quantum physicists working with sub-atomic theory, though of course it is a predominantly physical rather than spiritual oneness that such scientists are attempting to describe. However, where most of us can only think about the notion of ‘oneness’, shamans actually live it through the experience of the shamanic ‘journey’ and direct, personal interaction with spirit.

Described as a ‘breakthrough in plane’, in physiological terms the journey begins as the shaman redirects the primary cognitive process from the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain to the right, through the corpus callosum – that is, from the structuring, organising hemisphere to the visualising, sensing one. In the overwhelming majority of traditions around the world this ‘breakthrough’ will be assisted by the use of percussive sound, such as drumming, rattling or clapping. Although hallucinogens such as ayahuasca are widely advertised in the West as a means to help alter consciousness, in fact fewer than 15% of traditional shamans use plants in this way. Metaphysically, the journey begins when the shaman’s consciousness shifts from the here and now and enters worlds visible only to him or her.
Read the whole article.

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