Something about using the word ‘power’ can cause a profound reaction in those who hear it, particularly in women. We seem to hear the word with discomfort, perhaps associating it with misuse, with the power to do harm, the curtailing of freedom, or with racism, sexism, ageism.
Even the kinds of power required for making life easier, electricity from nuclear or fossil fuels, are now viewed by many of us as double-edged as we strive to discard them in the increasingly desperate pursuit of ‘clean power’, i.e. power without consequences.
Mention ‘personal power’ and the discomfort increases; I have observed students react physically to these words by shaking their heads, or making dismissive gestures with their hands, as if to say, ‘That has nothing to do with me, I want nothing to do with power’. The flipside of this are those who hear the words ‘personal power’ and immediately recognise themselves to be powerless, who know they’ve lost something and would give anything to get it back but don’t know how. So, in the context of the resistant relationship that many of us appear to have these days with power, where does the shaman, that conduit of power, fit in?
One misconception about contemporary shamanism is that it’s something a person can simply decide to call her/his own practice, or mention as an add-on to other healing or divinatory work. Many New Age practices draw on the power of the individual practitioner and ill-health and ‘burn out’ are often encountered in practitioners who work in this way. On the contrary, shamanism has a very precise methodology developed over millennia that protects both the shaman and her client: the shaman works by shifting consciousness and sending out part of her own spirit to engage with spirit helpers in alternate reality and to ask to share their power for specific and stated purposes. Shamanism is all about power, the shaman works by filling himself with power, by becoming power-full. How then does this power from the spirits differ from the kind of power that makes people uncomfortable? The answer is, that it doesn’t. Power is power. As with most things that matter, the difference lies in intention: what is the power for, how will it be used and for whose benefit?
At the very beginning of my study of shamanism in 1998 I learnt two words that defined these issues. My first teacher, Jonathan Horwitz, a North American then living in Denmark, discussed shamanic power using the Danish words magt and kraft to express the distinction between power over and the power to do. Magt or ‘might’ is the type of power that causes people who consider themselves balanced and liberal to squirm in their seats. The other type, kraft, or ‘craft’ expresses the neutral aspect of power that all things require in order to function. Too often these distinctions become lost and the concept of kraft is lost in the rejection of magt.
A subject often raised on courses is the difference between shamanism and sorcery, a useful illustration of the practical differences between the power to do – shamanism, and power over – sorcery. A sorcerer seeks to gain personal power through drawing on the energy of the spirits and is prepared to use that power to control or harm others. A shaman asks for power from her spirit helpers in order to become a bridge between worlds and bring help and healing to those who need and ask for it. The shaman uses power for the things they’ve asked help for, whether it is for someone else or for themselves.
Many of us, and again it seems to me that women often have a harder time with this than men, reject our own power to do, giving it away to our family, to books, ‘experts’, and most often to our partners and lovers. From a shamanic perspective, loss of power can be a precursor to soul loss, so it is vital that we accept and use our own authority.
Shamanism and Power: Part 2 coming up.
Dr. Zoë Brân
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Dr. Zoë Brân has worked with creativity for fifteen years and is the author of eight books, which include travel literature, guides to sexuality, and fiction. Zoë was a Writer in Residence at London’s University of the Arts from 2004-2008 and lectured in both Creative Thinking and Travel Writing at City University in London. As a travel writer and journalist Zoë travelled extensively, focussing on troubled areas of the world such as Burma, Bosnia and most recently, Cuba. She has been a speaker, teacher and presenter at conferences, academic institutions, charitable organisations, companies and businesses and has worked with media on topics as diverse as AIDS – the subject of her doctorate – sexual behaviour, Vietnam and shamanism. She has appeared on BBC TV and national and local radio, including ‘Panorama’ and ‘Woman’s Hour’. Currently director of Shaman UK, Zoë has been involved with Core Shamanism since 1998 and is one of the UK’s leading practitioner/educators. She offers one-to-one shamanic counselling and healing and leads shamanic seminars and workshops on a range of subjects, including: Sex and Gender, Death, Soul Retrieval. Her weblog is among Europe’s foremost resources for contemporary shamanic practice and has a worldwide readership. Zoë lives in London with her lurcher, Arlu.
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