Shamanism: What are spirits?

Not surprisingly, one of the questions I most frequently asked by students being introduced to shamanism is, “What are spirits?”. Perhaps because Western society has mostly avoided thinking about the non-material world for many generations we lack a clear, objective understanding of such things as spirits. These days ‘spirit’ is a one-size-fits-all word encompassing entities, energies, ghosts, angels, ancestors, the undead, elves, fairies; the list is seemingly endless.  Personally, I have two understandings of the concept of spirit and though the two coincide, they are not the same and yet they work for me.  The Core Shamanic, or Western, tradition which underpins my own shamanic practice and teaching, describes spirits as ‘part of all that exists’. Unlike most traditional religious teaching, for example Christianity, which believes we are human beings with souls, shamanism teaches that we are spirit currently inhabiting a physical body in order to have a human experience. If you think about it, this is quite a different way of seeing ourselves and the world!

The spirits I meet on my ‘journeys’ are dis-embodied and therefore have an overview, of me, my problems and strengths, that is unavailable to me because, being in the body, I’m too close to the details of my own life and affected by the ego. Despite this, my spirit helpers and I are essentially the same: particles of infinite universal energy, fragments of the Great Spirit. We all come from this energy, exist within it and return to it. It is actually living this perspective which allows a shaman to experience the absence of separation between things that ordinary-reality considers very separate indeed, such as you and me, men and women, life and death, or health and disease.

My second understanding of spirit is more psychological and archetypal and was very simply explained by the psychoanalyst, CG Jung, in his autobiography ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’.  Describing his experience of a specific spirit helper, Jung wrote, “Philemon … brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself.” This is a beautifully lucid explanation of how it can feel to interact with spirit during a shamanic journey. More prosaically, I describe the process of journeying to my students as having one’s imagination harnessed and directed by something external. This can be hard to understand in words, but is quite easily grasped during the journey itself, which underlines the truth about shamanism: that it is a deeply practical spirituality that is all about taking personal responsibility. It’s about doing and being, rather than reading or thinking. It’s about experiencing and knowing, not just accepting or ‘believing’ the thoughts or words of others.

Dr. Zoë Brân

email [email protected].

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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