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image credit: Pablo Amaringo

“Working with a shaman is not always safer than working without. You have to watch these shaman types, they can be a fairly beady-eyed lot; it is the archetype of the trickster, don’t forget that. The notion that this is just some open-hearted little forest fella that wants to tell strangers all his hard-earned deep secrets; well, that’s a cheerful Western assumption! … choose your shaman extremely carefully.” —Terence McKenna

The shaman mystique runs deep in the Amazon, imported by innocent, sometimes gullible visitors seeking an ayahuasca experience with the ultimate ideal(-ised) maestro. Google searches and Reddit posts abound for “How to find a real shaman/the right shaman/a genuine shaman.” The belief is, find the perfect medicine man who will see into your soul and fix you.

The reality is more complex. Here we dive into the archetypal roots of shamanism, gaps between indigenous practices and Western assumptions, and what differentiates shamans from facilitators.

Healer, Priest, Medium, Sorcerer

Just about every indigenous culture in the world has healers who mediate between the visible and spirit worlds. We call them shamans, from a species of Siberian wizard encountered by Europeans in the late 17th century. The word comes from the Tungus tsa-man, “one who knows.” Similar terms like the Quechua yachak and Shipibo onaya suggest that this association of shamans with wisdom is widespread.

Broadly speaking, shamans are a combo priest/doctor who enter into states of altered consciousness to tend to a community’s psychological and spiritual needs. Their mission includes healing and curing, communicating with spirits, and divining the future. Sometimes, but by no means always, they use psychotropic substances to assist in these feats.

For example, Amazonian shamans traditionally drank ayahuasca to travel into another world in order to gather hidden information. This could involve divining the location of lost objects, learning the best times and directions to hunt animals, or discerning the origins of illness in a patient (the médico drinks the brew in order to trace the origins of illness—usually brujeria or witchcraft). Nowadays participants drink the brew themselves, and focus their intentions on psychological or spiritual inquiry and/or personal improvement—equally dimensions of hidden information.

What’s With the Mystique?

The shaman is a universal archetype, existing across all cultures throughout time. The deep resonance and fascination we feel towards shamans is an elemental part of being human. We’re wired to seek human intermediaries between the mundane world and the supernatural. And some of us are wired to mediate like this, to serve as shamans.

We all have this instinct, yet those of us from the modern world generally don’t know what to do with it, because the European lineage of shamanism has been virtually extinguished. From the Roman Empire’s slaughter of the Druids through centuries of Catholic persecution of pagans, Gnostics, heretics and Cathars via the Inquisition, to the terror-infused witch hunts and beyond, a bloody history of oppression scars people of European descent in invisible ways. The attempted eradication of shamanism continues today: evangelist missionaries in the Amazon target “unreached” ethnic groups, converting indigenous people to Christianity, and stamping out the remaining old traditions like vegetalismo, sometimes bloodily.

Miraculously, the shamanic impulse has survived to this day—you can’t kill an archetype.

The European shamanic impulse survived in esoteric forms (some revived by Carl Jung, the 20th century’s “shaman in a suit”), but some 1,600 years of persecution have succeeded, to a degree that we believe shamanism is a mystery possessed by other cultures, but not our own. Pockets of shamanism exist in the modern world, as neo-pagans, Wiccans, Gnostics, practitioners of ritual magick. Psychotherapists play a modern-day shamanic role. So do rock stars, political pundits, and possibly the chairman of the Fed. These are all unacknowledged, however. Our shamanic lineages are broken, and we turn to sources outside our culture to reconnect. As Andrew Camargo says, we need a soul retrieval for the Western shamanic spirit.

Still, miraculously, the shamanic impulse has survived to this day. It’s archetypal in nature, and you can’t kill an archetype. Equally miraculously, indigenous people have kept shamanic practices like ayahuasca curanderismo going into the modern age.

This is where we come in. By showing interest in (and paying for!) the old traditions, we open a path for their continuation in the modern world. Young people see it’s possible to make a living practicing traditional arts catering to foreigners. I’ve repeatedly heard curanderos in the Peruvian Amazon say that they like working with Westerners/Northerners. Our garden-variety neuroses and physical ailments make us easy patients, compared to local clients saddled with witchcraft, who require a more demanding and dangerous type of work for far less pay.

Cross-cultural exchanges like these are a mixed bag—as the anthropologist Bernd Brabec de Mori notes about gringos in Pucallpa drinking ayahuasca with locals: “We own great sums of money compared to local people, and our behavior is incredibly naive”—but they offer a chance these traditions can survive.

Shamans, Facilitators, and Neo-Shamans

Among the indigenous people of the Amazon, while healers are increasingly likely to identify as chamánes (especially with Western clients), typically they’re known as vegetalistos, curanderos or médicos—maybe ayahuasqueros if that’s their specialty. In the elaborate world of plant medicine healing there are many areas of expertise.

In the Shipibo-Conibo tradition, for example, ayahuasqueros are classed as onaya (ayahuasca healer), moraya (shamans with transformational superpowers) and banco—the highest level of shaman, requiring dieting for over 40 years in order to serve as a channel for powerful shamanic ancestors. It’s generally agreed that no bancos and few if any moraya are left, giving them legendary status.

Many underground ayahuasca circles around the world are held in a neo-shamanic context, characterized by exquisitely talented musicians and beautiful music—possibly a few icaros, but more often medicine songs in English or Spanish, mixed with Sanskrit mantras and prayers in different languages. Often it’s a breathtakingly beautiful mix, where the right song seems to arise at the exact time to intersect with one’s process and trigger new releases.

These type of ceremonies are led by people I might often call facilitators rather than shamans. Some of them agree with this, some don’t, and innocent participants often mislabel anyone serving ayahuasca as a shaman.

At the same time, I don’t believe the shamanic skillset is exclusive to indigenous identity. I’ve sat in ceremonies with self-professed shamans who were no more than facilitators (not always good ones at that), and with nondescript individuals of various ethnicities who never used the S- word, but who clearly were. Humility is an important quality in any true healer, and a genuine shaman will rarely call himself such.

What Makes a Shaman?

One thing is clear: there are not enough indigenous maestros in the world to meet the growing demand for ayahuasca. Some people seem to incarnate with special talents, perhaps karmic connections. I’ve come to believe it depends on an individual’s relationship with the medicine, their experience, their lineage, their training—and the quality of their being.

My personal bottom line for shamans and facilitators alike is that they’re not abusive, predatory egomaniacs. The ability to hold a safe and clean space, to be a good babysitter, if you will, is essential. Any medicine skills they may have on top of this are a bonus—and these are what ultimately differentiate shamans from facilitators.

At higher levels of experience and training comes the ability to direct and move subtle energy: to open and close ceremonies appropriately, to call in spirits and work with them, to raise or lower the level of mareacion in the group, and to help remove blockages, unkink flow, and restore energetic harmony in individuals. Becoming an ayahuasquero generally involves much study and sacrifice, including years of apprenticeship in an unbroken lineage. The blessings and energy of one’s teachers count for something here. Shamanism involves working with subtle energies and unseen forces.

Such skills are gained from experience and practice. Dieta is an important element in shamanic training, to accumulate the connections with plant spirit allies that can support one’s work in ceremony. A good shaman is a good guide because she’s been through initiations and obstacles of her own. It’s similar to the axiom among therapists, that “You can’t guide someone through levels you haven’t been through yourself.”

What Shamans Do—and Don’t Do

A good ayahuasquero/a can indeed see your blockages, the specific content of what you’re carrying. S/he may sing icaros to remove them, do cleanings using mapacho smoke or agua florida, chupar or suck bad energy from your body, rearrange subtle energy with the shakapa (palm leaf fan), communicate directly to you without speaking, and more. They can intensify your mareacion or bring it down, control the energy in the maloka, blow specific intentions into your cup or zap you from their seat without any external indication of individual work taking place.

A common misconception is to paste the image of this mythic maestro atop a competent ayahuasquero, and be disappointed when they turn out to be merely human.

That’s the basic framework of modern ayahuasca shamanism, simple and straight as far as these things go. In the past, ayahuasca shamans would likely engage in brujeria and spirit warfare, and some still do—but that’s another topic.

What shamans don’t do is do all the work for you. They do not miraculously remove and cure everything in a single night, all by themselves. The main teacher is the plant (ayahuasca) and the healing/teaching spirits who appear in the space. The ayahuasquero is a channel of transmission, potentially embodying decades of experience, who mediates the plant’s healing impetus.

Confusion thus arises when people travel to South America expecting the shaman himself to magically remove their problems. A common misconception is to paste the image of this mythic maestro atop a competent ayahuasquero, and be disappointed when they turn out to be merely human. Often someone has such a mind-blowingly powerful experience with ayahuasca that they conclude the particular center or shaman they’re working with is The Best, when it’s simply the nature of the medicine and the readiness of their psyche.

Another facet of this cultural mismatch is contextual. Curanderos see everything in the web of connection—ayahuasca works by reconnecting—while fragmented Westerners seek quick symptomatic relief à la antidepressants, not seeing that their “depression” or “anxiety” is just the tip of an iceberg that ayahuasca healing might address in broader, deeper, slower and more subtle ways.

Quest for the Ultimate Shaman

The shaman quest reminds me of spiritual seekers looking for the guru who will deliver enlightenment. Seeking the all-good Father/Teacher/Guide is common in many different fields. The Fix-Me quest gets tangled up with the illusion of the all-powerful parent who will make everything better. Such a fantasy is seductive for shaman and pasajero alike, and can be dangerous in this regard. The “I get to be powerful: You get to be healed” exchange isn’t a mature framework for growth.

It’s important to not conflate the archetype of the shaman with that of the guru.

I witnessed similar dynamics (and to some extent participated in them) over the years I was involved with the Buddhist scene in Kathmandu: foreigners coming to the gompa to meet the Rinpoches, expecting miraculous healing, secretly hoping to be blessed and transformed, or maybe singled out as special. Gurus as spiritual teachers do exist, in the best possible way, as humans who embody the liberation we aspire to. Gurus can transmit blessings, generate waves in your subtle energy field, offer a glimpse of liberation through their very being, and guide you in your practice. Regardless, even gurus don’t do it all for you.

The Paradoxical Trickster

And shamans are not gurus. I think it’s important to not conflate these two archetypes; to remember that the shaman is not a spiritual sugar daddy. Shamans can manipulate energies in amazing ways, often for the benefit of beings, but they are not meant to be followed as spiritual teachers. A guru is a venerable being “heavy-laden” with enlightened qualities. A shaman is by nature at least a little bit of a trickster. Guru and shaman are very different archetypes (although some individuals, like Trungpa Rinpoche, ride that line magnificently), and the unconscious conflation of these can be confusing, even dangerous.

As anthropologist Wade Davis says:

“There are so many misconceptions about shamans—that they’re benign figures with feathers and bells . . . I’ve never met a shaman who wasn’t a little psychotic. I mean, that’s their job— they enter the mystic waters that most of us would drown in. They want to go into the metaphysical realms, whereas most people just want to give their kids a good life.”

Davis goes on to compare certain shamans of the northwest Amazon to “nuclear engineers who go into the heart of the reactor to reprogram the world.” That’s a breathtaking analogy worth pondering—and it’s also worth noting that the beings he’s talking about reprogram the world at a cosmic level, not the individual at the psychic level.

Want more? Here’s an interesting in-depth discussion of What Makes a Good Shaman?

This is a rich/dense topic! Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments below.

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