The term shamanism describes many different and individually complex systems of thought and experience. In English we apply it to highly specific cultural rolls performed in many other societies, and now our own. We also use it to describe one subset of the spectrum of subjective experiences deriving from the, more or less, objective transcultural phenomena of a spiritual or metaphysical dimension.
More simply, shamanism is many different things. I’m going to give you two of the definitions that I have had from my own experience over the years.
You are a shaman when your spirit guides say that you are.
Shamanism, as I have observed it, is of two parts, transmutation and relationship. Most begin with one or the other, but in reality they go hand in hand. I began with transmutation. I was confronted by horrible parasites invading my energy body. In overcoming them and healing myself, I was irrevocably changed. Through that process I was brought into relationship with the forces that would shape and guide me.
Transmutation is the process that frees a shaman from the bonds of ordinary life and sets them apart from it. The initial process is often akin to death, the only process universal to all cultures by which a human being leaves physical reality. Some actually die briefly, most become ill or face a trial. Beyond this point transmutation shifts from the destructive force that frees one from the physical to a balance between creation and destruction. As you are taken apart you are put back together again in a new form with new perceptions and abilities.
Relationship is what binds a shaman to spiritual existence. These bonds take many forms. Some are cultural, such as the initiations and teachings of many different lineages. Without these bonds the spirits and forces of those lineages will probably not respect or work with you, no matter if you can see and speak with them. Other bonds come from one’s own experience. Though I have read and studied widely, I have no lineage, so it was necessary for me to find my own guides. Each of them has had their own way of working and communicating with me. The spirits of places, animals, objects, etc. will not work with you unless you have shown them respect, sincerity and often more.
The shamanic experience is a shift to a lower-level semiotic programming language of the mind. The reality of the symbols upon which your previous lived experiences were predicated come into question because you can see them as constructed and made out of smaller parts that can be rearranged, or they simple appear incoherent. Far more complicated and subtle symbols manifest as your perception is refined in the lower-level languages. Soon you begin to redefine your personal identity and the set of experiences that you are willing to admit into the realm of the “real.” Which brings us to me.
My definition for a shaman, outside of the cultural role, is “anyone who both perceives and interacts with informational, energetic, etheric or spiritual states of existence and has guides or helpers within those states. I am a shaman.
This text was taken from my post “In Media Res” found here.