Whenever the word shaman is mentioned people conjure up an image of a half-naked wild aboriginal dancing around an open fire. That’s as wrong as is the movie version of Native Americans who say “ugh” and “Me want wampum.”  There’s so much more.

Images of drugged up glazed eyed  hallucinating chanting figures  calling up spirits from the nether world  are just as illusionary as the late Jeff Chandler playing Cochise.  Then, what is this more?

Some anthropologists have classified Shamanism as an archaic magical-religious phenomenon in which the shaman is the great master of ecstasy. Ecstasy needs definition if we are to come to an understanding of what a shaman does.  We are talking about a state of being carried away by overwhelming emotion not a drug.

It is known that some shamans do use drugs to induce a state of ecstasy. When this is the case, it is generally for the purpose of experiencing the subconscious. This writer does not advocate the use of drugs. There are safer ways of arriving at an altered state.  Those who use meditation also generally frown upon the use of drugs.

The shaman creates emotional ecstasy in a patient,  besides through the use of drugs, by the use of music. In aboriginal terms this might be flute or the repetitive resonating beat of a drum. It can also be created by the voice of the shaman when he makes a high-pitched sound.

Unfortunately, many westerners have turned to the aboriginals in the jungles of South America and the mountains of Tibet for the experience of enlightenment by taking hallucinate drugs.  A healing shaman does not necessarily pursue this approach despite the fact he is primarily a holistic thinker.

The shaman uses various herbs and plants from the natural world to help his patient. Poultices, steam with an infusion of herbs, and rich broths are standard. Many have the function of cleansing the human system.

The use of music, sounds, and the dance is more for effect and show. Yet, one may not discount the psychological affect they produce in the patient.  Evidence suggests the human body can heal itself. The shaman’s goal is to increase that potential.


Native American Shaman

As a shamanic healer and as a non-Native American, I recognize that not all tribes appreciate the word “shaman” being applied to their healers. Each tribe has its own language and terms for one who heals. I use the term because it is widely recognized as a part of common language.  At no time, is there any intent to insult the First Settlers of the North American  Continent. The image below is of a Navajo healer.

Native American Shaman

Hastobiga (Navajo)


Norman W Wilson, PhD

The shamanic trance, of all a shaman does,  is most often discussed and is frequently viewed as the ultimate experience in shamanism.  The shamanic trance is not something that can be achieved with one lesson from some site on the internet or can it be thoroughly learned from a seminar or internet course. Practice makes perfect is the credo.

Generally speaking there are four basic levels of a shamanic trance. Stages might be more appropriate. It is not the intent or is it the suggestion that a shaman goes through each of these levels each time he or she goes into a trance. Well practiced shaman may very well go directly to the fourth level or stage in the trance.

The first level is common among beginners. One has a sense of being physically relaxed; even drowsy. There is a tendency to just stare off into space, unseeing. The pulse rate slows.

The second level produces a feeling that the whole body is heavy; a sense of detachment occurs. There may be visual illusions and you will be aware you are in a trance.

The third level brings full recognition that you are in a trance. Here you may actually choose a part of your body to not feel pain.  There is a greater sensitivity to temperature changes as well as to atmospheric pressure. There will be loss of voluntary motion and reaction of external stimuli.

The fourth and final stage or level of the shamanic trance  your eyes may be opened and cause no ill effect in the trance. Control over several body functions such as heart beat, blood pressure, and body temperature become possible. Memories will be recalled and age regression may come into play. There will be a feeling of lightness, of floating or flying. Visual and auditory hallucinations are possible while at this level of the trance.

The shaman who is in this stage travels into dreamtime and there receives his or her instruction.



I approach the subject of shaman, shamanism, and shamanic powers with considerable consternation. And I do so despite the fact that the word shaman has become a part of American landscape. I use the word(s) because of its recognition and ask that those who have objections to accept a single fact: I mean no disrespect. Likewise the term ‘medicine man’ is not a term used in Native American Culture(s).

The word shaman as I understand it, is an import from the Siberian Tungus [Evenks]with some hint of a Sanskrit connection.  Literally, it means one who knows—a Promethean quality.  The question that needs to be asked is a simple one: What does the shaman know?

To answer that question we first have to accept the notion a shaman operates with a basic premise: The world is composed of invisible forces and/or spirits that affect all life—human and non-human.  Within this premise lies the notion that plants, rivers, lakes, oceans, trees, and rocks are all imbued with their own special qualities. Science tells us that there are invisible forces; invisible to the naked eye so the idea that certain individuals can tune into those forces should not be shocking.

Because the shaman has this ability to tap into this ‘universal consciousness’, he or she is called upon to function as a healer. Here the shaman’s role is to heal the community; to bring harmony to man and nature, as well as to individuals.  To do this, the shaman retires into an altered state of consciousness.

Some cultures as well as individuals use a variety of drugs to induce the shamanic state. I am an opponent to such use. Grave permanent dangers lurk for the novice. On that basis, there will be no specific hallucinogenic drugs mentioned.  The shamanic state may be produced by the use of sounds. Drums have been used for eons. Flutes and humming have also been used. Today there are tapes, CD and videos for altering the state of consciousness.  The use of OHM in meditation is a popular choice. Notice I have chosen not to use the word trance. It suggests a lack of control.

The seeker should go into a shamanic state with just a single question in mind; not a shopping list. Disappointment will be the end result.

There are, according to some authorities, three levels in a shamanic world. These levels have no connection to religions. The first level of the shamanic journey is called the underworld. At this level emotions, memories, and psychic healing take place. Sometimes, one’s power animal is encountered here.  Generally speaking, access to the underworld is achieved by going through a tunnel (as Enkidu in the Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh), or flowing down an underground river. Other times, one may achieve this level through a sudden flash or a rappelling.  The second level is the middle world. Here plant spirits, spells, curses and ghosts are located just outside of reality. And please, don’t ask for a definition of reality. (Note the popular television series, Ghost Whisperer takes place at this level.)  The upper world is the third level of the shamanic world. Here spiritual teachers and Jung’s archetypes exist. The teacher arrives unbidden quite often and at first experience,  and at first may not be recognized.

The third level may be obtained through extensive meditation and the production of altered states. Native American musicians David and Steven Gordon, R. Carlos Nakai, the Native Flute Ensemble or Scott August certainly would help set the tone for such meditation. Listen and let their song carry you. The harmonics are surreal.

One does not just become a shaman. One may achieve shamanhood through transmission. That is, one may inherit that ability. Second, one may experience a ‘calling’ or what is sometimes called spontaneous selection and finally, one may personally quest it. In this case, expect long, long periods of training. One of my former students had been in training by his grandmother since he had reached puberty. He hoped to be ready by the time he was in his mid-twenties.  It’s not a semester course or a week-end seminar at a resort.

Back to my question: What does a shaman know? Generally, the shaman is a sensitive and knows, intuitively, what someone else is feeling.  He or she has a substantial background in organic plants and herbs used for  healing, and certainly he or she knows how to pray to whatever power there is. A shaman tunes in to the psychic and emotional needs of a person and leads that person’s  energies to help heal.

A cautionary word is essential in view of the recent tragedy in Arizona. Beware of the self-proclaimed. And I’m not implying the person(s) responsible for that sweat lodge experience is, but  it’s always a good policy to know your guide. The shamanic state is not for everyone. Massive spiritual cleansing and renewal is not for everyone.  A shaman by whatever name you wish to call him or her is not a catholicon. It that were true, then we would be living in harmony and peace and be disease free.




Norman W Wilson, PhD

Core Shamanism is a term introduced by world-famous anthropologist, Michael Harner in the mid-1980s.  The word core means the choicest or most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience. Basic and fundamental as identifying terms also are applicable. Simply put, core shamanism takes the best from traditional shamanic practices and brings them into the modern world.

Appealing to people who are on quests for transcendence and healing, core shamanism offers the opportunity for direct contact with the spirit world. What do transcendence and healing mean? Transcendence is a state of being that has overcome the limitations of physical existence, and by some definitions, has become independent of it. It is journeying to another realm; perhaps to a parallel universe. Healing implies and incorporates both physical and psychological conditions of the human being.

A word of caution is appropriate at this point. When making contact with the spirit world never do so in a frivolous or light-hearted manner. It does not exist for your entertainment! Don’t approach the spirit world with a litany of requests.

What does core shamanism advocate? First and foremost is the concept of journeying into alternate realities. Using hallucinogens such as datura, yopo, peyote, or ayahuasa creates an altered state of consciousness conducive to traveling to different realms. These mind altering drugs are not the preferred method of journeying and one must be extremely careful in using them.  The recommended and most widely used method for journeying is drumming. In addition to traveling to different realms, core shamanism has seven major principles.

1.       Sentience and interconnectedness exist throughout the cosmos. Humankind has long believed there is a living universe; that all things are alive. Animism is the label. Sentience goes further than this. Within sentience, there is the belief that all things are connected much as in the old song, “the hip bone connected to the knee bone.’ After all, we are made of the dust of the stars. Probably, the best illustration of this is the story of the butterfly that flaps its wings in China, and the repercussion flows throughout the world. It’s the classic example of the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in a deterministic nonlinear system. Despite science’s claim to having found the “God Particle,” they have not determined that which created it. In shamanism, there is no need for that because, for them, the cosmos is a living, creating entity.

2.      There are two realities: ordinary material reality, that is waking life, and non-ordinary reality, populated by spirits, souls of the dead, deities, and transcendent powers. Do not assume non-ordinary reality is not real or that one is not fully aware of activity. Spirits generally appear during darkness. Some, however, do make themselves visible during daylight hours. Souls of the dead create some concern here because there are those who believe we do not die, but simply move on to a new life. . . born again, so to speak. Look at it this way, when one is born, he or she comes out of the dark, warm, comfortable world of the womb into a new bright, often chilly and uncertain new world. Some come without struggle. Others have a difficult time. What we ordinarily call death is leaving this earth womb for another world. This other world is the Akasha Record or Akasha Field, the place to which all energy returns to await future need and use.

3.      Reality is composed of three layers: Middle World (where we are now), Lower World, and the Upper World where spirit-teachers and animal spirits exist. Philosophers arguing for hundreds of years have not provided any clearer concept of reality than that found in core shamanism. Middle World, our current existence, does have spirits. They come into this world to help, to protect, and to heal. They remain here as long as their assigned tasks are not completed. The Lower World is the home of power animals and these may be the normal animals such as birds, fish, bears, wolves or they may be mythological animals such as the unicorn. Most shamans have a power animal that serves as a guide and guardian.

4.       Reality is dualistic in that it views spirit and matter as distinct. The issue of dualism has long plagued westerners. The shaman doesn’t bog down in the issue. Spirit is and matter is. Man is dualistic being composed of spirit and matter. This does not imply that they are diametrically opposed to one another. Opposite yes; opposed, no.

5.      It emphasizes helping and protecting others as well as one’s self. The major function of the shaman is to help others get well physically and spiritually. For those of you who might seek the help of a shaman don’t ask him or her to help your favorite team win a game. In so doing, you are also asking a loser to be created as well. That’s counterproductive.

6.      Alternate reality can affect material reality. Because this is near the end of the list, it does not lessen its importance. Journeying into alternate realities affects   a change in the material reality. It is here that future events may be changed.

7.      Knowledge and direction come from the spirits. Knowledge about healing, and the direction that healing is to take comes from the spirit world. As the shaman journeys to another reality, dimension, parallel universe, he goes with one specific goal in mind: what is he to do to help his patient. Knowledge about the workings of the universe and humankind’s relationship to that universe comes from the spirit world.

     In core shamanism, the shaman travels to these other realities in an altered state of consciousness. The spirit world quest is focused.  To help him or her achieve this altered state of consciousness, drumming is used rather than hallucinogens. Its methodical, steady beat (slightly over 200 beats per minutes) changes the brain’s theta, alpha waves, that is, the telencephalic neurons are stimulated, and with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses in the brain, it can create any world it desires.



The World of the Shaman is Changing

Norman W Wilson, PhD

Briefly, a shaman is one who engages in altered states of consciousness to access the spirit world. Generally, this engagement is for healing purposes. However, sometimes the engagement is not for benevolent reasons but rather, for malevolent considerations.  Whatever the intent, shamans believe they are a direct intermediary between the human world and the spirit world. This notion embraces the shamanic acceptance of unseen spirits permeating the world. Furthermore, they believe these spirits directly influence human life and destiny.

The word “shaman” originates from the Evenk language (Tungusic) of North Asia and arrived in the west during the 16th Century.  Public image of the shaman has been of an aboriginal person dressed in animal skins and other regalia. That is not necessarily true today.  Blue jeans may very well be the attire of choice.  Clothing is not the only change evolving around shaman and shamanic practices today.

In spite of efforts to bring shamanism into the 21st Century, the traditionalists are experiencing a worldwide revival.  Areas such as Mongolia, Central Asia, Siberia, Europe and the United States are enjoying this revival. Shamanic centers have sprung up in England and the United States.

Shamans generally work as singles; however, one of the significant changes in the shaman’s world is the increase in organizations. These ‘unions’ have established working conditions and fees paid for services.  One such organization, The Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies, (Ulaanbaatar) boosts a membership of over ten thousand. Another organization, the Society for Shamanic Practitioners is located in Colorado.

One shamanic aspect remains steadfast. Shamans strongly feel they exist to serve the community and because they believe the cosmos is a unified whole and that all things are connected, that community may be worldwide.

Certainly, one of the more significant changes is the adaption of the Internet, the creation of websites, and blogs. When combined with advertisements in newspapers, magazines and journals, shamanism emerges as a growing source for spiritual, psychological, and physiological healing.  A source, citing links to shaman in many of the states is http://www.shamanlinks.net/Shaman_Links.htm.


Dr. Wilson is the author of Shamanism What It’s All About, The Shaman’s Quest, The Shaman’s Transformation, The Shaman’s War, The Shaman’s Genesis, and The Shaman’s Revelations.