Shamanism’s roots extend deep within the history of the world’s cultures. Core shamanism, although technically a newcomer to the scene, extends just as deep, it’s concepts embodying the essence of all the various ancient shamanic traditions. Like all shamanic traditions, Core Shamanism is “grounded on a view of nature in which spirit travel is both possible and necessary” (Berry 2012:159). The name, idea, and practice of Core Shamanism was initially developed by Anthropologist Michael Harner, who had a significant amount of personal experience with various shaman traditions, especially the Hivaro of the Ecuadorian Andes (Harner:1980:1). Core shamanism is not based on any specific cultural tradition, but includes and utilizes basic ideas and practices that are a common undercurrent in nearly all traditions of shamanism- such as employing certain techniques to enter altered states of consciousness, a general belief that aspects of the physical world can be affected or changed by taking action in a non-ordinary reality, and that everything has a spirit. The intention behind Core Shamanism is to bring the basic teachings and benefits of shamanism to individuals who lack a specific shamanic tradition in their own culture- at the same time respecting indigenous cultures by not “copying” their sacred traditions, ceremonies, and the language used to describe such traditions.
Unlike some other spiritual traditions or practices, Core Shamanism does not entail any creation story or concrete belief system-“shamanism is a path of knowledge, not of faith, and that knowledgecannot come from anyone else in this reality. To acquire that knowledge, including the knowledge of the reality of the spirits, it is necessaryto step through the shaman’s doorway and acquire empirical evidence.” (Harner 2000). Shamanism is learned through personal experience, and even the specific beliefs that seem to be crucial to the concept of Shamanism aren’t concrete, end-all beliefs. There are individuals who practice and believe in the benefits of Core Shamanism, but attribute its effects strictly to placebo affect, or to some unknown psychological shifts that occur, rather to the idea of literal manipulation of unseen realms. Core Shamanism does however emphasize the implementation of various ethics to be practiced when a shaman is working with a “client”, such as working only with good, loving intentions, and keeping strict confidentiality with a client.
Michael Harner said, “Wherever shamanism is still encountered today, the shaman functions fundamentally in much the same way and with similar techniques- as guardian of the psychic and ecological equilibrium of his group and its members, as intermediary between the seen and unseen worlds, as master of spirits, as supernatural curer. The shaman is able to transcend the human condition and pass freely back and forth through the different cosmological planes” (Harner 41).
In Core Shamanism, these three different cosmological planes are referred to as the Lower, Middle, and Upper World. It is in these planes where the Shaman can meet and consult with personal spirit guides and animal helpers, retrieve missing “soul” pieces, find lost “power animals”, extract dark or unwanted energy that is attached to a person’s energetic body (which can cause physical or spiritual illness), and communicate with spirits of the terrestrial world- the plants, animals, mountains, rain, etc. To access these realms, the shaman enters into a non-ordinary state of reality, and goes on what is referred to as a “journey”. The process of entering these states of non-ordinary reality in different shamanic traditions, can entail the use of psychoactive plants, all night dancing, chanting, and drumming. In Core Shamanism, drumming is generally the most commonly used tool, as it is simple, legal (unlike some of the psychoactive plants), safe, and- it works. Drumming is said to be effective because it initiates changes in the central nervous system and affects activity in the brain. The low frequencies allow more energy to be transmitted to the brain, and it has been established that four to seven cycles per second is the most effective speed of drumming to enter an altered state of consciousness (Harner 51).
The Lower World, as described by Leo Rutherford in Way of Shamanism, is the “place of instinctual knowing where our animal-like powers reside…most helping spirits take the form of animals, some of humans, some mythical beings. Generally speaking, it appears just like the natural landscape does in this world. When journeying, everything one experiences is of relevance and has symbolic meaning” (Rutherford 1996:88). The Lower World journey is initiated by the in-trance shaman first envisioning a chosen “portal”, which may be something like a cave, a hole in the roots of a tree, or diving down deep into the sea. The shaman then continues “down” this portal until breaking through a noticeable veil or barrier, which signals the entrance into the lower world (Rutherford 88).
The Middle World is experienced as a parallel non-ordinary version of our own world (Wood 2001:51). It is believed this is the realm where a shaman can interact and work with the spirits of the plants, land, a crystal, a drum, etc. Practitioners of Core Shamanism generally believe that all things in the world have spirits, and can all be encountered in the Middle World (Wood 50).
The Upper World is generally described as an ethereal, light, beautiful place, and is where one can consult with spiritual guides and teachers. The moon, stars, and planets are also associated with the Upper World (Wood 49). Shamans usually venture to the Upper World when inquiring about healing an aspect of themselves or others. By meeting with one of their spirit teachers, they can find out what specific work can be done and any relevant information that will assist in the healing process (Wood 49).
Shamanic journeys, much like dreams, “require interpretation…but they might also demand action” (Chedester 48). In shamanic journeys, everything encountered may have a possible deeper symbolic meaning. A shaman may be instructed or encouraged by his power animals or spirit guides to carry out a certain action in ordinary reality that will be beneficial to the shaman.
Two of the most common Core Shamanism techniques practiced are “power animal retrievals” and “soul retrievals”. In core shamanism, everyone is said to have at least one power animal. A power animal can infuse specific beneficial characteristics, strengths, and powers into a person and their life. For example, a lion power animal may bring an energy of fierceness into life, of loyalty, and power to manifest desired events. A power animal is retrieved by a shaman journeying to the lower world and “asking around” to any beings encountered where their power animal is. Usually a power animal will show itself quickly if that is the reason for the journey, and can be confirmed by the shaman simply asking the animal if it is his/her power animal (Harner 67). If a power animal retrieval is being conducted for a client, the shaman will consult his personal power animal(s) first, and ask them to help find the client’s animal. Once the animal is found, the shaman will inquire as to what specific powers or strengths it will bring the client. Next, the shaman will “cup” the animal in his hands, and returning back to ordinary reality, will blow through his hands onto the client’s chest and crown of head, transferring the energy of the power animal (Harner 84). A Soul Retrieval is believed to bring back missing parts of an individuals energy body, which unattached or escaped during periods of extreme stress or trauma. Symptoms of soul loss can be: disassociation, chronic depression, PTSD, addictions, and generally feeling “out of it” (Ingerman 2012). A Coma is considered to be extreme soul loss, with more soul missing than present in the body (Ingerman). A soul retrieval is performed very similar to a power animal retrieval, in finding and bringing back the energy. However, the “missing” soul piece may be anywhere, and the shaman is led by his power animals and spirit guides to the specific area of non-ordinary reality where it is. The missing soul piece may appear as the client, but at a different age. Sometimes it takes gentle encouragement to effectively convince a soul piece to “come back” to its owner (Ingerman).
Shamanism, as ancient and distant from today’s world as it may seem, can still be integrated with relative ease. A modern shaman doesn’t need to be a jungle recluse or dedicate his or her entire life to the practice. Core Shamanism is an effective way for Westerners or others without a cultural shamanic tradition to learn beneficial techniques and instill a certain spiritual orientation towards the world. Shamanism persists because it produces results- whether they be “real” or purely a result of a placebo effect. Core Shamanism techniques allow people to explore perceived alternate worlds and realities.There is no distinction between helping yourself or helping others in Shamanism, for it is said that a deep realization that everything is one with the whole universe can’t help but rise to the surface of awareness during journeys. A shaman practices and works not just for his or her self, but for the broader purpose of helping all beings awaken to the reality of one-ness – and of seeing in the dark, and bringing a little bit of light back.
Berry, Evan. “Nature”. Hecht and Bondo. Religion and Culture. Minneapolis. Fortress Press. 2012. pp 155-173.
Chedester, David. “Dreaming in the Contact Zone”. Hecht and Bondo.Religion and Culture. Minneapolis. Fortress Press. 2012. pp 47-63.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York. Harper Collins. 1980.
Harner, Michael. “Core Shamanism Studies.” Foundation for Shamanic Studies. 2000. Dec 5 2012. <http://www.shamanism.org/workshops/index
Ingerman, Sandra. “Soul Retrieval”. SandraIngerman.com (2007). 5 December. 2012.<http://www.sandraingerman.com/soulretrieval.html>
Rutherford, Leo. Way of Shamanism. Hammersmith, London. Thorsons. 1996.
Serr, Dr. Steve. “Shamanism and the Upper World.” Shamanism101.com. 2012. 5 December 2012.<shamanism-101/com/Shamanism_Upper_World.html>
Wood, Nicholas. The Book of the Shaman. Hauppauge, New York. A Quarto Book. 2001.