Shamanism Without Borders

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and more recently the earthquake in Haiti, many shamanic practitioners felt the need to use our shamanic skills to alleviate the suffering caused by these natural events.  Thousands of people, animals, places, and life forms were disrupted, displaced, uprooted, and left homeless and suffering due to the fierceness of nature’s power.  While many of us use shamanism locally and with friends and clients, every now and then some far-off “natural disaster” occurs that tugs at the heartstrings and urges us to go to the scene of suffering and offer whatever physical or spiritual assistance we can provide.  Even if we can’t physically travel to the disaster site, our belief that shamanism is both timeless and placeless allows us to work remotely to alleviate suffering.  In June the Society for Shamanic Practitioners will hold its annual conference in Santa Cruz, California, and will focus on a concept directly related to these concerns: shamanism without borders.  The Board of Directors and many members of the SSP have been considering this idea for several years and we are now ready to inaugurate this project. (See the SSP web site at

Shamanism literally has no borders except the ones we construct for ourselves, as Carol Proudfoot-Edgar reminds us in her February newsletter at   Carol points out how often we view the world in dualistic terms of “me and not-me” or “mine and not-yours.”  She also calls attention to the concept of individualism that can also become a hindrance to understanding how we—wherever we live—are part of what happens in other areas of the world.  The concept of shamanism without borders is meant to open our eyes to this reality and to give us ways to plug our shamanic activities into those places where suffering is severe, long-lasting, and overwhelmingly disruptive to normal life.

One of the values of exploring shamanism without borders is that we can transcend our personal boundaries and borders that prevent us from fully understanding the nature and need of global emergencies like tornadoes and floods, as well as human-caused suffering such as war and genocide.  Inspired by the French organization Doctors without Borders, shamanism without borders realizes the need to work in teams, task forces, or circles of practitioners for a number of reasons but one of which is to share knowledge and healing skills.  No practitioner is good at everything, and many disasters require various kinds of relief efforts, both physical and spiritual. I want to speak directly to this topic of acquiring and sharing shamanic knowledge.

In the Celtic tradition each of us has a dan—skill, art, craft, know-how—that ought to be shared for the good of society.  When we do, we become the “people of dan”—the enlightened ones, the skilled ones, the gifted ones upon whom society depends for survival. As shamans we are the “gifted ones” enjoying knowledge and skill acquired from our practice of listening to compassionate voices that speak from the mystery of the Otherworld.  Our spirit teachers in non-ordinary realities associate with us because we make a solemn pledge to use our knowledge, skill, and wisdom for the good of others, for the good of the whole Earth.  In this age of global networking, some of us can and ought to focus our knowledge, skill, and wisdom on global concerns.

One of the vital requirements for any type of shamanic work is to carefully diagnose the conditions of suffering and be open to the ways that imbalances can be corrected.  We cannot “run off and do healing work” unthinkingly no matter how good or noble our intentions are. Carol points out that “intention must be combined with attention, to the ‘what and how’ of our healing work.” I’m reminded of an old Celtic triad about the requirements for being a poet, who in the traditional lore was expected to be a healer much like a shaman in other cultures.

Three things are necessary to be a poet/healer:  Study and acquire knowledge. Teach others. Make peace and put an end to suffering.

These are not isolated activities. “Putting an end to suffering” requires the activities that precede it. While alleviating suffering might be the intention, we must first put our attention on study, knowledge, teaching, and peace-making.

First, study and acquire knowledge.  I might reword these as “look carefully, see clearly, and come into knowing.” We are not talking about gathering information only, but true knowledge that implies deep understanding and insight. As I wrote in earlier River Current articles (This Fine Music, posted 3-15-09 and It’s (e.e.cummings’s) Spring!, posted 3-31-09), the world is always coming into being, and hence, we must be always coming into knowledge. Situations shift and reshape themselves and so too must our responses. The shamanic journey takes account of these shape-shifting conditions and provides a tool so we can base our healing efforts on a deep knowing about the sufferer’s spiritual needs.

Second, teach others.  It’s been said many times that the way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else.   I can attest to the truth of this from my own experience. You really don’t know if you know something until you try teaching it to someone else. Shamanism without borders will create teams of healers and thus provide opportunities for each of us to teach others what we know.  This will be one of the main focuses at the June conference.

Third, make peace and put an end to suffering.  I often wondered if this final piece of advice was really two activities squashed together for the sake of being a triad.  But the more I contemplate this I feel the two must go together.  Peace within ourselves and between ourselves is a requirement for healing.  When we are at peace with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us, then we can embody the peace and harmony that re-balances the disrupted energies that cause injury and suffering. Our efforts to provide healing for the suffering that comes from nature’s disasters will require ceremonies of peace-making.  This may be one of the harder requirements for shamanism without borders because it means we must view the rampages of nature from a place of peaceful acceptance that whatever we call the disaster—hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood—it is the way of the Earth.  We cannot indulge anger, fear, or cynicism about Earth and her ways if we hope to stand upon her as her children, her offspring, as part of her deep and mysterious processes. No matter what happens, we must stand upon the Earth with love. (See River Current article Katrina, posted 9-9-05.)

We bring to our healing work, whether on site or from a distance, the knowledge that we have acquired from our past experiences, from our reading and study, from our ancestors, from the instructions of our advisers in the spirit world.  In circles and task forces we can share this knowledge and hope to put together the package that another Celtic triad speaks of:

There are three kinds of knowledge: the nature of each thing, the cause of each thing, the influence of each thing.

If we hold this triad in mind, we see the interdependence of all things, and realize our own interdependence and connection to all things.  We can overcome the dualism of the “me and not-me” that Carol warns can prevent our discovering how to do shamanism globally. We can also overcome the limiting notion that each of us works alone.

And lastly I’ll conclude with yet another triad that we might hold in our hearts and minds no matter what type of shamanism we are practicing.

There are three things a person who desires to learn must do: listen intently, contemplate intently, and be silent continually.

Enough said.  For now.