The base definition I am using here is that the shaman is the archetypal technician of the sacred, and their profession is mediator between the mystical and ordinary consciousness.
Conventionally, there are two different ways to be called as a shaman:
1) Hereditary – ancestors were shamans. A “lesser” shaman that is designated by the social community.
2) Spontaneous “vocation” (call or election) and such a shaman is believed to be called by the spirits. A “greater” shaman designated by a supernatural order of power.
The spontaneous vocation of the shaman may begin with the shaman becoming extremely nervous and withdrawn. The future shaman is called to cure themselves before they can cure others. In our modern world, the would-be shaman is called to cure themselves of the illusions and bonds that are given to us all. The curing may or may not be physical, but the sickness will be psychological, and energetic sickness can lead to physical sickness.
Traditionally the initiation can be very harsh. The illness removes the past – reveals the “data of human existence” while the ritual initiation (plunged into freezing water, slashed with quartz knives, left to fast alone) brings the shaman fact to face with death and beyond.
Suffering is a feature of the shamanic initiation. Suffering has several uses. The first is that it presents the future shaman as somebody who is willing to walk the path more then they wish to live and that everything they own, even themselves, is sacrificed and dedicated to the path. For the shaman, the experience of suffering is a sign of being unaware and not open to Spirit. Suffering is useful because it points to falsehoods and clashes with reality. Suffering is a path to the shaman’s awareness. Suffering is a result of being disconnected from the unity of nature, and at the same time it is the guide to removing those things that keep the shaman from achieving the unity of physical and spirit that is their path.
Traditionally the shaman must “attain to intimacy with the supernatural by visions of death”. The old must die so the new can be reborn. The shaman must cure himself of the initiatory suffering, and only afterward can the shaman cure the other members of the community.
Suffering is also a path for the modern shaman. Pleasant experiences make life delightful, but there is no change. This is not the shamanic path. Painful experiences lead to growth. This growth occurs through understanding. Understanding through awareness of pain will allow the modern shaman to break the attachment that causes the pain. Focused observation reaps the rewards of suffering. This breaking is not a separation, but instead it is the ceasing of the grasping of illusions the modern shaman must evoke and pursue.
There are some common themes in shamanic initiation:
- Vertical movement of spirit. Visions of vertical caves, rainbows, and birds are often featured.
- Acquisition of “helping spirits” or supernatural beings – shaman gains power over the spirits that came to eat his flesh or challenged him. The violence of the encounter is attached to the power gained. While the gaining of the spirits does not require violence, there is always an element that transcends the normal.
- Attainment of vision: seeing in darkness (3rd eye) or seeing into hidden things, future or secrets of other men.
- Suffering due to physical pains (cold, heat, hunger) are lessened or removed as the shaman shifts their awareness into the spirit realm.