Why Do We Have Shamans?
by Kenn Day
The shaman has always been the one to stand between the community and the unknown. For most of our history, this meant taking a stance at the edge of the firelight, peering into the darkness, while everyone else huddled around the fire.
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 42.
The shaman today still holds the same stance, but the nature of both the community and the unknown has changed beyond recognition. The community is no longer a cohesive whole, as in a tribal culture. With advances in understanding the natural world, the unknown has shifted to those things which cannot be seen or heard or measured by science.
Now we look into the darkness in search of the connections between ourselves and our ancestors, the Earth and each other. These are the connections that humans are accustomed to from over 70,000 years of cultural tradition, in which the most important unit is the tribe, the clan, the whole – rather than the individual. It is only in the past few hundred years that this structure has broken down so far that those of us born into today’s Western cultures no longer know what it means to belong in the same way that our ancestors did.
This shift from tribal consciousness – identifying as the group before the individual – has left us with an invisible wound. This wound is a deep hunger for connection, for union, for the immediate and palpable presence of our ancestors and the spirits that populate the world. The wound rests beneath our conscious mind, so that all we are aware of is the hunger. The hunger that drives us to seek solace in alcohol, drugs or anything else that seems like it might be what we are hungry for. But nothing we reach for in this way can fill that void.
Many years ago, I coined the term “Post-Tribal Shamanism” to define the altered role of the shaman in our post-tribal culture. While there are many similarities, the role of the post-tribal shaman is mostly about addressing this invisible wound. It can appear in every part of our lives, from disconnections between parents and children to alcoholism and abusive relationships.
Many of the traditional tools, like soul retrieval and energetic healing still play an important role in the work of a post-tribal shaman. It is the focus of the work that has shifted. In tribal cultures, the role of the shaman is to maintain the health and cohesion of the tribe as a whole. Individuals are treated in service to the good of the community, rather than for their own, personal well-being.
The post-tribal shaman has no cohesive community with which to work, and the very nature of our society is such that each individual is most important to themselves. This means that the shaman’s community consists of those individuals which they are in service to, regardless of any connections between the separate clients. The very nature of this service has shifted as well, because it is now the individual which needs to be supported, empowered and healed.
One excellent example of this transformation is in the use of soul retrieval. In tribal practice, the shaman generally performs the retrieval for the client, journeying to the location of the lost piece, bringing it back and “blowing” it back into the client body. All this is done with a minimum of participation on the part of the person receiving the healing. This practice is perfectly appropriate in a setting in which both the shaman and the client are parts of a greater whole, which they both recognise and identify with. However, in our current culture of extreme individuation, this same practice can leave the client feeling disempowered and “done to” rather than healed. It is much more effective for the shaman to engage the client in the process, to bring them on the journey and have them experience the return of missing pieces directly. It is also important for the client to recognise that they have done the work and are responsible for integrating the retrieved pieces back into the whole self.
The post-tribal shaman still stands at the edge of the light, though now it is cast by computer screens, mobile phones and neon tubes. The darkness has changed as well. It is deeper and less easily navigated, even by the light of day. But as long as we have the need, there will be shamans who answer the Call.
Meet the author: Kenn Day is a professional post-tribal shaman, learning, teaching and working in service to many communities. He offers workshops in several U.S. cities and is available wherever interest is strong enough to call him. For further information visit his website.
Post-Tribal Shamanism: A new Look at the Old Ways
£9.99, available from Watkins Books
consciousness, issue 42, Shamanism