I am using the word shaman because of its popularity: shamans have their own names for themselves depending on their background and location. I call myself kupua, which is a Hawaiian word for a shaman found among the traditions of Polynesia. A kupua focuses on the essence of a tool rather than it's ritual.
There are many definitions of shamanism, but few mention the core of shamanistic belief that I learned from my teachers. Most definitions describe what shamans do rather than what shamans believe. Shamans use whatever tools they know that seem appropriate for the circumstances. A listing of these tools doesn't constitute a precise meaning of the limits and uniqueness of shamanism.
Almost all books on shamanism, both scholarly works and popular books written by "shamans", are about shaman tools and descriptions of so-called shamanistic ideas are presented in a very unshamanistic way: shaman ideas are described as if shamans believed them. This limited view of shamanism is understandable since shamans, when talking to non-shamans and beginning students, avoid frustrating attempts to discuss the unreality of reality.
Much nonsense has been written about shamanism. To quote just a few of many examples: "The basis of shamanism is an animistic view of nature"; "The main principle of shamanism is the attempt to control physical nature"; "A shaman uses symbolic magic and a form of fetishism [where power rests in the power of the shaman and rather than the object]". Observations like these are based on a confusion between what a shaman "believes" and what a shaman decides will be effective in a certain circumstance in one particular moment. Animism, used in the sense of the belief that "spirits" are everywhere is different than using a useful tool where the shaman is merely acting as if everything has a spiritual nature. A warrior shaman may act as if he is controlling "physical nature" (whatever that is), but to a shaman who is more than an apprentice, that is only a game: the belief is unimportant - only the results are important. And finally, to a shaman, symbolic magic and fetishes are only tools, not statements about reality.
A popular scholarly viewpoint is, "A shaman enters altered states of consciousness and travels to other realms." A shaman may even actually say this - if he is using the terms of a scholar's view of reality: "altered states" and "other realms" appear to be reasonable terms to a person who believes that "ordinary" reality is one thing and "non-ordinary" reality is another; and that each can be described as an absolute thing. A shaman's world is filled with a sense of the actuality of that world, but in a way that is both the same and the opposite of a dictionary definition of the word "reality".
Philosophers have struggled with questions of reality throughout history. And every time someone fancied he was getting close, there have been other philosophers lurking in the shadows, ready to gleefully discover assumptions beneath the original assumptions: philosophy had an informal "peer-review" thousands of years before it became fashionable in science (with all its virtues and faults), although a scientific peer-review is never concerned with basic assumptions about reality - after centuries of labor even philosophers seldom find that a worthwhile path.
Some shamanic ideas are found in expected and unexpected places. Some of these ideas make sense to many people - the ideas sometimes "feel" right and they sometimes seem to agree with experience. I have often read that a "kahuna" is a "Hawaiian shaman". There are and were kahuna shamans, but they are two distinct traditions. There were Druids also that were shamans, but in both cases they were rare. And, as might be guessed, there were (and are) shamans in Polynesia and Celtic areas that are not kahuna or druids. A shaman is a healer but there are few shamans among healers; today and even in the distant past.
Collections of ideas like "huna", or whatever anyone prefers to call the Hawaiian esoteric tradition, have some shamanistic ideas, but like similar traditions around the world, are not shamanism. Shamanic ideas are found in works like the Bible, the Kalevala, some Star Trek Television episodes, among many other works. What separates these works from shamanism is that the ideas are perceived and presented as The Way Things Are, while a shaman views All ideas as simply useful or interesting. A shaman treats beliefs as tools.
In this discussion, I describe shaman tools only as they relate to shaman ideas. I have chosen to present shaman ideas in an unshamanistic way since I am trying to define shamanism, not write about how to become a shaman. Definitions are all made up. That should be obvious to everybody, yet some people imagine they have solved a problem when they've stuck a label on something or someone ("Understanding is the key."). Definitions are not statements of reality, they are tools of communication.
If I were writing a formal article on philosophy, I would have defined some statements more precisely. But since I am writing a definition of shamanism, I didn't want to obscure their general meaning by adding hundreds of words of explanation. Other statements I have added for their emotional effect: I describe shaman ideas by choosing words that will offend as many people as possible - a reaction to words can start a person thinking through a desire to prove the author is talking obvious nonsense. Yet, behind the words, the ideas themselves are the fundamental core of shamanism - I just hope shamans from other traditions will still be able to recognize their own ideas after I have reduced them to their essential meaning! If you ask a bunch of shamans what a shaman is, you will get a bunch of answers. I am trying to condense the essence all of those answers to a common core.
I also hope to show you a way of looking at things that you may find helpful. A viewpoint that is not just a way of looking at shamanism, but one that may increase the peace and effectiveness in your life.
I worked as a systems analyst for over 25 years. During most of that time I called myself a shaman. I became aware of how close and related the study of the nature of systems is to the study of shaman ideas - That's why I have chosen this peculiar approach.
However, shamanism isn't an intellectual exercise: it's a game involving body, mind, and heart. We base our world on what we have experienced; it isn't created by logic. Years ago, Napoleon Hill wrote a book read by millions called Think and Grow Rich. If he had known, he would have written a more useful book called Feel and Grow Rich.
Many shamans play a game of developing power and insight through conflict and control of personified things (the so-called way of the warrior). Other shamans act as if power and insight can best be achieved through love and cooperation. These shamans de-personify things and work with the effects of things and conditions (what I call the way of harmony).
If a person tries to learn about shamanism by studying what a shaman does, many things will seem to be inconsistent and illogical - especially if the person is a product of Western thought. On the other hand, I have met shamans (who may or may not call themselves that) who do not have a clear conscious idea of the core beliefs of a shaman, but are successful at applying their own unconscious core beliefs. Calling yourself a shaman doesn't make you one. A shaman isn't created by some sort of "initiation" or recognition or acknowledgment, or by experiencing some "state of consciousness". "Shaman" isn't a title or a state of being - it is a skill.
Thousands of years ago someone looked at his or her beliefs and reduced them to a few "self-evident" core beliefs about the world. A person's world view is the collection of all the logical (and illogical) extensions of these self-evident "facts". Mathematicians call this an "axiomatic system".
The vast majority of these axioms and extensions are taught to us: some by other people, some
by the "world" we perceive around us. Some are our own ideas. The extensions are ideas about things, not "what is". But in
every case we made a choice along the way to accept or reject them: we are responsible for who we are.
With an axiomatic system, by its very nature, the best that we can hope for is to make it internally consistent and internally complete. In practice, this only works for relatively limited systems. When we try to make inferences external to the system, we are no longer in the realm of logic. This is a frequent problem, since it is difficult to notice when we are crossing the edge - we then start questioning the intelligence of someone who disagrees with us.
Our beliefs are what we consider possible ("what is"). So all that is is our world view. This defines and limits our personal universe. We all can conceive a universe beyond what is, - but "only" with our imagination. We perceive what is possible, with maybe a big or little miracle or two thrown in along the way. For some people, miracles happen because of our limited knowledge (delusion) - Television would have seemed a miracle in the 19th century. Others see miracles as Divine Intervention. But in both cases they seem like miracles because they are beyond our ideas of what is normal.
The limits of our ideas about "what is" limit our perception on a very basic level; those perceptions are within the scope
of "what is". We perceive what is real and that realness allows us to deduce what is. It all goes around in a circle.
In other words, our axioms determine our world view; our world view determines our perceptions. If it looks like an elephant, walks like an elephant and feels like an elephant - it must be an elephant!
If someone says, "But, look at the world out there, it looks real to me!" That person is starting to think like a shaman!
Shamanism isn't about trying to prove that rationality is unachievable. Or about proving that our beliefs determine and confirm our world - that's unnecessary: the shaman acts as if there are no proofs. The problem for someone who has a Rational view of the world is to prove that what we experience isn't a result of our beliefs - No "self-evident" truths allowed! - You can't prove or disprove an assumption with another assumption. Inductive logic doesn't help here either, since we are talking about the basis for perception itself. If you can't disprove this, you can't logically say the world is such and such … Or even say the world "out there" is out there.
If you decide to ignore this challenge and still masquerade as a Rational Man, that's okay with me - if you are not ashamed of convincing yourself with voodoo.
But, "You can't prove a negative." Who knows where this college freshman, "law of logic" folklore originated. Certainly not from the logisticians. The "Law" is probably a confusion of the saying that you can't Inductively prove something doesn't exist because you can't prove you know everything about everything ("negative existential judgements"). If you can't prove a negative, then the negative logical statement "You can't prove a negative." is unprovable. So it's an illogical thing to say. (Actually, every negative statement entails a positive, so there are no purely negative logical statements.) Anyway, I am not asking anyone to "prove a negative" - I am only saying that no one can call himself a rationalist without disproving that our beliefs determine our world.
Why should you waste your time answering a trick question when all you have to do is look around and see that the world obviously doesn't work that way? You won't be the first person who has been able to reconcile incompatible beliefs; shamans do it all the time; humans have a talent for it; but a shaman is aware of doing it.
Until a Rational Man has disproved this, he can't honestly call himself a rational man. He can't intellectually hold a rational view of the world. Each Thinking person Must ask "Am I being intellectually honest with myself or am I only blindly following the Doctrine of some unnamed Church of Rational Thought?" Anyone who takes a rational view of the world without disproving that our beliefs determine and confirm our world is living in a dream world.
A shaman says exactly that: the world is a dream.
Everyone has to take his or her axioms on FAITH - that's all we have - there are no other options - even for people who dislike the word faith.
If our axioms are accepted on faith, there is no difference between "reasoned" faith and blind faith: there is only blind faith. If you prefer to call it reasonable faith, that's okay, but recognize it for what it is: an emotional preference. Many people say that blind faith is the only desirable kind. Others feel the very nature of man allows us to pick the true assumptions (the world out there is really there and we can know it) - that may well be, but that is another assumption.
Although I am using the term "belief" in its intellectual sense, a shaman often views reality as if it is the result of our beliefs, expectations, intention, desire, focus, love and fear. I am not just presenting the idea that our beliefs "create our reality". I am simply implying that it is often effective to view the world as if it is the result of a few primary Causes. Practically all non-shamans focus on a bunch of Effects and call that "The World".
A shaman is not saying this is the way things are. He is only saying that some things are more important than what he believed yesterday or what he will believe tomorrow. In describing shaman beliefs I am not saying the world isn't what you think it is. A shaman friend of mine says it this way: "The world is what you think it is." All I am saying is we may have to admit the possibility that at some time in our life we may have accepted some of our ideas without sufficient proof (actually, I am talking about all of our ideas, of course.) A corollary might be: give people a break when we disagree with them - they may not be stupid, but just working with different assumptions. Judgement is an emotional reaction, not a sign of superiority.
Of course this way of thinking can lead to belief in Nothing (nihilism). But the shaman doesn't travel down that path. The shaman says that things are actually very real for the person who believes they are real and that personal reality is not in any way inferior or less desirable or less "real" than some "Cosmic Truth". Is there such a thing as Cosmic Truth beyond personal truth? - You are free to decide, based on what you emotionally feel comfortable with.
If something is real for us, we will think and experience and act in a way that reflects that reality. The shaman decides not to play the game of "What is Really going on?" since the answer depends on faith. He accepts reality based on his faith - along with his power to change his mind when he feels like it.
If all this seems too simplistic to be true, consider that it is simple and that the concept pertains to all "knowledge": no matter how complex our perceptions of reality and how those perceptions agree with our other perceptions, who can say that they are independent of our beliefs? Who can say what a perception actually is anyway, independent of other perceptions? Any definition of the concept of perception itself is based on a logical process starting from a set of assumptions.
If all this violates common sense and goes against the way you feel things are (faith), try kicking a box with a hidden brick inside and say, as Samuel Johnson once said, "I disprove it thus!"
Lobachevski, Riemann, and other mathematicians demonstrated alternatives to Euclidean geometry and mathematically proved that there is no way to choose between them. It wasn't just geometry that was affected - The problem goes beyond the question: Is Euclidean geometry true? Or is Riemann geometry true? It asks: If there is no way to choose, how can we know what is real?
Poincaré gave a shamanistic answer: the question has no meaning. All of our concepts are only convenient definitions, some more interesting than others. Einstein, in true shamanic fashion, chose Riemann geometry to describe space… and space complied.
All this won't come as a surprise to many people: it can all be gleaned from any college course in Philosophy of Science - even though most scientists think this is a lot of hog wash (if they have thought about it at all) - they, and most other people, have an emotional attachment to their World View. It gives them stability and power. Shamans don't take things so seriously, they are comfortable in a changing world because they don't rely on it: they find power from within.
I don't want to give the impression that shamans are anti-science. Actually I suspect most
shamans have always viewed scientists as kindred spirits and look on science as a fascinating and useful game. - A game with arbitrary fixed methods
and rules (from a shaman's point of view) such as repeatability, double-blind experiments, reducio ad absurdum, etc. If you are playing a
game of chess and decide to make any move you want, you may have fun, but you are no longer playing chess. The game of science has its place in the
scheme of things and its Basic rules Have changed over its history and (hopefully) will continue to evolve.
Since we have chosen to play the scientific game, most of the time we have to sail in safe waters in order to return to our familiar port. Psychiatrists used to lock up people who ventured into unknown waters and lost their way back, now they give them drugs to deaden their awareness (put their brain chemicals back in "balance" and allow them to "cope"). Most of us seem to have a fear of sailing into the uncharted sea of irrationality. Author Robert M. Pirsig called it flat earth reasoning - "If you sail too far, you'll fall off the edge!" - it's scary stuff.
Logic can be one of our most valuable tools. If you are playing a game, it is often useful to follow the rules. It's not hard to find people who expound theories that are inconsistent or incomplete within the axiomatic system they are using. There is no law that says you can't use your head. To scientists, logic is crucial to the game. They don't have much sympathy for those who don't use their heads. Some scientists see pseudo-scientific theories as a dire threat to the well being of an ignorant misguided public that needs to be protected from Nonsense before damage is done. The damage sometimes happens, but the scientist's emotional response is weakened by his lack of understanding of the basic assumptions behind his "facts". The shaman is trained to play with assumptions and can't help looking for assumptions behind a logical (or illogical) statement.
One tenet of the scientific method that scientists sometimes try to follow is to not decide on an answer before you start - suspecting an answer is different than expecting an answer. This isn't practical for a shaman since he pretends that beliefs precede perception. Science takes a conservative approach to phenomena. Something is suspect until the mechanism for its existence is known. This helps eliminate "false" data and places the burden of proof on the observer. It also tends to eliminate innovative ideas.
I won't insult your intelligence by pointing out the obvious logical flaws in such pop-science homilies as "Occam's Razor", "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", etc. (as they are usually applied). You can find many discussions exposing the fallacies of these pseudo-scientific methods if you care to look.
A shaman doesn't take these recreational scientific games seriously: explanations are only models - shamans are interested more in the value something has.
How fast a belief becomes generally accepted depends on the generally accepted authority of the people who already hold the new belief. The acceptance usually starts within the scope of a specialized field and spreads out from there. If an unusual phenomenon is observed by more and more people, belief in it may increase until the normal world view includes the phenomenon. Science can then stop rejecting the unusual observation and start explaining it in ordinary ways. "Obviously, the world was that way all along." - History is a handy tool for confirming our beliefs.
A shaman realizes these ideas about the way the world works are only arbitrary points of view. A self-proclaimed Rational Man has no difficulty devising other explanations. We choose different viewpoints based on emotions ("It feels right") or faith ("It IS") - Unless, of course, you are the first Rational Man in history who has honesty answered my challenge and has disproved the shaman's whimsical point of view that what we experience is a result of our beliefs.
A shaman is the ultimate practical person since he has no emotional attachment to his ideas: a shaman will use any method that produces the desired result. It's the results that count, not some Sacred Method. But note, one of the many meanings of the Hawaiian word "pono" is harmony. It implies that the means determine the end (not - the end justifies the means!): if you want a peaceful loving outcome, use peaceful loving means.
What the shaman thousands of years ago did with this understanding of belief systems was subtle and surprising: if our belief system is unprovable, can we change our core beliefs and Construct another world view?
Once the shaman gets over the psychological block that "this is somehow cheating", the shaman finds it is possible to change one's world view. The first shaman probably went no further than this; changed to another world view and stayed in that other world.
Some time in the evolution of shamanism someone observed that different world views have different advantages - some belief systems are more effective under some conditions than other systems. This shaman may have asked something like, "Would it be 'cheating' if I were to change world views based on how effectively they accomplish what I want to do?" This person was the first true shaman.
Don't get the idea that a shaman is "pretending", although this can be a good way to start in a desired direction. Pretending is a power of the intellect - to get results, the shaman must Know in the present moment that the world is really "this way".
To the shaman this isn't just an intellectual exercise - if our beliefs determine our perception of the world, then those perceptions obviously are what is "out there". The concrete unchanging world changes in step with the accepted thoughts of the people who make up that world. Surprising new discoveries don't reveal previously hidden facts about the world, they reveal a shift in beliefs. If the concrete unchanging world, as we KNOW it to be, proves our world view, who can tell the difference between a view of the world and the real world "out there"?
We build a Model or we accept someone else's model and make it part of ourselves. We don't recognize the model for what it is - just a model. We confuse it with "reality". The model acquires a life of its own and we build logical skyscrapers on a mound of "facts". Sometimes the results can be tragic: the Inquisition had the glorious goal of saving a person's Immortal Soul at the expense of that person's unimportant mortal body. Sometimes the result only affects ourselves. Sometimes we accept the teachings of people who sound Wise when they talk or write about their own logical skyscrapers. The teaching, whether temporal or spiritual, may have its own share of wisdom, but it's only a model.
To a shaman, reality is what we make it to be. A shaman will accept a particular reality at some particular moment, but a part of himself will retain the view that it is only a model. He is then able to view that reality from a more universal point of view. A shaman looks at things in a relativistic way. This can widen his viewpoint and allow him to discover assumptions hidden from a person who looks at his beliefs in an absolute way. This viewpoint has the advantage of helping the shaman perceive the value and limitation of that model. It allows him to substitute aspects of other models into his current model without shame.
Jainism has a technique that someone described as "peeling away the layers of an onion": ask - "Who am I?"; answer - "I am …"; then - "I am not that!"; ask again; ever getting closer to the core. Try looking for the assumptions behind one of your beliefs; reduce the assumptions to a few core beliefs; then look at your surface belief with new understanding. You may be surprised.
Things that start with "The" are not shamanistic ways of thinking. Sometimes these things are described as "The Law of "... Thermodynamics, Karma, etc. The law is logical and useful or people wouldn't bother with it. But to a shaman it is limiting. It involves placing power outside of yourself and makes you more helpless: "It is The Law and since that is the way things are, we have to work with it."
"But something either exists or doesn't exist, right? There are no other options." - If this seems reasonable, perhaps you need to become more aware of your world view. Not all questions can be answered yes or no. An indeterminate question can have a value of its own.
A shaman tries to become more effective by increasing his ability to use inner power. To a shaman, the source of inner power is infinite and abundantly available to everyone - We don't need to increase or "build up" something that is infinite, we need to discover our freedom to consciously use it. Power is the ability to accomplish something. In physics, it is the rate of doing work. For a shaman, it is an Effect of confidence and authority. The Hawaiian word for this is "mana", a word that is often confused with "energy". A better, common meaning of "mana" is "divine power" - not in the Judeo-Christian sense, but in the sense that everything is divine … It's only a definition and all definitions are only attempts to avoid confusion.
Work is the effort applied in accomplishing something: force is applied to transfer energy. We transfer energy with our intent and focus. Energy is the strength or capacity to do work. In Hawaiian, the words "ki" or "ti" have an inner meaning of energy - Compare the word "ki" to the Japanese word "ki" or the Chinese word "chi". Polynesian kupua (shamans) thought of "ki" in a way similar to what some people call "life force". To physicists, energy, force, work, and power are related to each other as a result of these interactions, and the universe is the result of a small number of metaphors they call primary "forces" (gravity, electro-magnetism, and strong and weak atomic forces). A shaman thinks of things and the relationship between things as an interaction of the metaphor of the one primeval "force" that he/she calls "energy". Becoming aware of these interactions is the path to using inner power.
I leave it to you to speculate on what effects changing a world view might have for someone's personal reality and what value might be gained from it. - notice I avoid saying what is or is not "true". Everyone's world view is unique; the differences come in all colors, shapes and sizes. You might consider that a new world view implies creating a new personal universe. Or assume that something is left behind after such a universe has been created: Can you visit other universes created by shamans, or other people, or yourself, or "others" in the near or distant past? I am using "past" here as a term of convenience and not stating that time does or does not exist. (I am adding these interruptions to the flow of the text not to irritate you, but to remind you to think like a shaman.) Consider the idea that our shared, familiar and "normal" universe may be continually branching into different, perceived shared universes - usually shared only among the inhabitants of their own particular universe. (Do you choose which branch you take?) This is a shamanistic viewpoint that has an echo in modern science.
This may get you started - you can dream as many dreams as you want - but don't pretend you know that this is a waste of time until you have tried it. You may have noticed what I have implied already: the "reality" of the existence of any universe including our own "normal" one is not necessarily a part of the value someone receives from a personal experience. To a shaman, the only relationship that value has to "reality" is what we make it to be ... so why make "trueness" such a big deal?
Escape on a voyage of fantasy using your imagination (one of the few true powers we possess). You may experience some surprising things. By sailing off the edge of the flat earth you can look back and see its "true" shape. Just don't tell your friends or they will try heal your madness, or roll their eyes and snicker behind your back - after all, this isn't some primitive stone age society, we have advanced beyond that, haven't we?
If you think you have a rational mind, you need to become more aware of the mind games that are always playing inside ourselves. A rational approach to things is often a very useful tool. But becoming more aware can give you the freedom to choose which tool you want to use. If you aren't aware of any valid options, you have no choice. You are stuck with one tool. Think about listening to music: you can think about counterpoint, harmony, structure; or you can dance; or be carried away with emotion; or just feel the beat… All are valid, useful and enjoyable ways of listening to music. You have a choice.
The most effective world view is often the world view of someone the shaman is trying to help - a shaman is a healer of mind, body and circumstance. Observe the different tools shamans use in different societies. A shaman often finds power in accepting the world as it "exists" rather than trying to change it.
A person can have shamanistic ideas about "reality", but without a commitment to healing, that person is not a shaman. The word "sorcerer" is sometimes used to describe someone who changes world views to obtain personal power.
A shaman views health as a creation of the patient. A shaman, M.D., counselor, therapist or whoever, can only assist a patient: healing comes from within. The most important part of a healer's job is to convince the patients that a healing is actually taking place - through shamanic journeying, surgery, pills, counseling, or whatever. The other part is assisting the patients heal themselves, through journeying, surgery, pills, counseling, or whatever. Some shamans may say the "convincing" part is the only part - beliefs precede reality - and a shaman is a realist (as a shaman defines it). Other "realists" would say shamanism is far removed from "realism". Other healers may have their own ideas about their role…
One healing technique sometimes used by shamans in some parts of the world is what is now popularly called "soul retrieval". A shaman views the world in several ways. One effective way is to view the world as if everything is separate. This is the way most people view the world. "Soul retrieval" can only take place in a world where things are separate. A soul can't be separated in a world where things are connected or things share a "oneness". But a shaman may think of this as a useful tool when the patient is convinced that his or her soul needs "retrieving". An effective shaman would never suggest this as a new concept for the patient - unless this is the only healing technique you know, why create additional problems?
To a shaman, healing is more than helping unhealthy people. It sometimes seems as if life, things and events all strive towards their Own idea of perfect health. A shaman tries to become aware of the goals of anyone or anything he or she is trying to cooperate with.
A shaman has a background that can't be completely discarded. A shaman has a faith in something that he or she can't or doesn't want to change. We all have faith in our own gods (our ideas), or faith in God (theist), or faith in the non-existence of God (atheist), or faith in our lack of faith in God (agnostic). Atheist are fond of saying that they aren't saying that God doesn't exist, they are saying that they don't believe in God - either way they are professing their faith. An agnostic is basically saying, "I don't know." or even, "No one knows." - That is the convenient intellectual camouflage we often use to conceal faith in our basic beliefs from ourselves. Some would include with agnostics, those who instead of professing their faith, imagine themselves as rational believers ("Here is the Evidence…"). Many would say that at some inner level we are all theists.
Explore the assumptions beneath "I don't know." or "Who knows?" There are many ways to learn. To discover the most valuable things, we don't need teachers - we all know more about things than we think we do.
A shaman doesn't completely switch world views. To be effective, a world view only has to be adopted to the extent that results change. Everyone can observe this - notice how many people pass by with smiles when you are happy - and how many have frowns when you are grumpy. It's easy to explain: "It's only our perception."
Is our shared physical world real? - To a shaman, our normal world holds a legitimate and influential place among many other real worlds as the result of so many people experiencing it. A shaman doesn't think of the "physical" world as illusion in the sense of what some Eastern philosophies call a veil or maya. A shaman often does not even distinguish between "physical" and "spiritual": so it is meaningless to say one is "better" than the other.
Usually shamans view the world as if we are all connected. As a result, everyone's world view is affected by everyone else's beliefs. After all, if a baby rolls off the couch, he or she will land on the floor: it doesn't seem to matter what the baby believes about gravity, it only seems to matter what the observer believes. That's why a shaman has better things to do than try to fly. Doing things like trying to fly is a lot of work (most people believe in gravity) and indicates you have some need to prove your power - if you have power you don't have to prove it to yourself (you already know) or prove it to someone else (important only if you lack real power).
However, by shifting into different worlds, a shaman finds freedom; our choices are only limited by ourselves. The shaman doesn't worry about this being delusion: we call people deluded when they break our rules. If we could just give up the emotional attachments to our ideas, we wouldn't take things so seriously.
Starting from a knowledge of how a shaman views the world, the tools a shaman uses are seen as logical applications of that world view. You can test my definition of what a shaman is: the things that a shaman does, follow from working with different world views. Try this by looking at what shamans do from the perspective of belief systems and you won't have to take my word for it.
So here's my arbitrary, simplified definition of shamanism:
|What is a Shaman? © Larry Williamson 2000|
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