What is a shaman? Having been involved in the ritualistic use of psychoactive plants for the past five years - specifically with the now infamous Ayahuasca and the lesser known but no less important Huachuma cactus - people have often asked me this question. Generally I take that as my cue to begin waving my arms about dramatically for several minutes while delivering an oration on the subtleties of the terminology, the pitfalls of the shamanic path, the nature of free will, and the mercurial line between good and evil cutting through the heart of each man, and especially each shaman; a term which still hasn’t yet been properly defined. At this point, I notice that my audience’s eyes have glazed over, and so I finish off my rant by saying something unsatisfying like: Well, I guess it’s complicated.
And it is rather complicated
I mean, does it really make sense to use the same title of shaman for an old mestizo man in the Andes who slices open guinea pigs and makes divinatory readings by analyzing the insides of the unfortunate furry critter, a Huichol Indian sitting beside a fire in the mountains of Northern Mexico consuming Peyote buttons and singing songs through the starry night, and a long-haired and ponytailed millennial in Los Angeles, with a satchel full of essential oils, beating on a drum like it owes him money?
The word shaman is a much broader term than say, carpenter. If you know that someone is a carpenter, you can be pretty sure they know their way around a hammer and that they at least occasionally build things when not drinking beer or listening to Metallica or sitting on a cooler eating take-out burritos. But if someone is a shaman, well, who knows what they are up to.
Some shamans are in the business of healing people. These are sometimes referred to as curanderos, and I’ve found them to be, by far, the most sane lot and with definitely the biggest smiles. I try to hang around them.
But there are many other varieties of shaman, the majority of which are vying for power, and these guys are kind of like the sorcerers you see in Disney movies - with hunchbacks and twisted smiles and mad eyes from staring into crystal balls for extended periods of time. You know, metaphorically speaking. Some of these, the ones keen on power, are in the business of making inter-dimensional deals with unseen entities and feel a bit like Moroccan carpet salesmen. For you my friend, I make very good deal, two entity removals for the price of one. Some are really just musicians who never quite made it in that industry and so they dawn feather headdresses and dose their audience with something strong enough to keep them glued to their seats for an evening of acoustical guitar riffs. Some, of course, are simply drug dealers wearing white robes, and many more are financially-crippled yoga instructors with Messianic complexes, also wearing white robes.
Folks, it’s the Wild West out here. But the point I was trying to make was this: pinning down what exactly a shaman is proves quite difficult. Especially when everyone and their sister are running around claiming to be one. When you meet a real shaman, though, you’ll know it. And one of the only points of agreement about shamans, real ones, is that they are “a bridge between worlds.”
That sounds cool, but what does it mean?
Well, a shaman is the bridge between the ancient traditions and the modern world. The bridge between ordinary, 3D reality and that space of ecstatic, hyperspatial and supernatural communion of the Divine. The bridge between this world and the world of Spirit. For anyone who has experienced authentic, plant-based shamanic ritual it is readily apparent that there is another level, a greater depth, a deeper connection that somehow the shaman facilities access to - a thing happens which just does not when you simply take a psychedelic compound, lie on your couch, and listen to The Dark Side of the Moon.
So this is all well and good, but there are pitfalls of finding yourself as said bridge between the worlds. You see, the beauty of shamanism, in its pure form, is that it’s mysticism and not religion. It’s a methodology of putting one into direct communion with the Divine, a technology which forgoes the middleman and just puts you on the line with God and lets the two of you hash things out.
But if you conceptualize a shaman as the bridge, it would be easy for this character to then slip in and leverage that position, charge a nice little toll to cross the bridge. And if you can convince people that you’ve got the only bridge in town, well, you can just wheel in the harem and start collecting Rolls Royce’s. Spirituality has wrestled with this problem since, I imagine, the dawn of language.
And if your shaman is a bridge between worlds, it also begs the question: To what world, to what outcome, to what state of being are they the bridge? Do they act as a bridge to health, to healing, to insight, to understanding and wisdom. I’ve come across more than one shaman who seemed only a bridge to insanity. These folks were certifiable themselves, and their clients were well on the path. I’m talking about the kind of folks that if you spent an evening imbibing their so-called medicine, you could easily find yourself running through the streets naked and by dawn be quite convinced that you have made contact with the star people of the Andromeda system and had been chosen to be their extraterrestrial ambassador. I refer to this type of shaman as a reality dismantler, and well, they are so terrifying that I’ll need to dedicate an entire piece of writing to them sometime.
So, reader, that’s the short version of my arm waving diatribe that I deliver when asked, “What is a shaman?” I told you that it was complicated. And it’s also kind of a downer. But then one day I finally understood how to answer this question in a much simpler way. A much truer way. A much more fun way. You see, I finally understood what a shaman is, or at least what the type of shaman that I am interested in is.
Are you ready for it?
I originally caught sight of this perspective from Don Howard Lawler, renowned Huachuma Maestro, when he referred to himself as a “set-up man”. As in, I’m just here to set things up, but this is between you and the plant, this is between you and Spirit, this is between you and God, my friend.
Being a set-up man removes all the complications of being a bridge that I pointed out earlier, it keeps things nice and tidy. In my estimation, it is shamanism in it’s purest form. And while a set-up man is a good way to phrase it, one might confuse that with being a con artist of some sort, and so my preferred term to keep things even clearer would be this: A shaman is a door man.
And at this point I’ll just turn it over to Samuel Moor Shoemaker, who was not a shaman. In fact, he was a pastor. Still he wrote what is, to my mind, the definitive poem on what it means to be a real shaman and it goes like this:
I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There's no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only a wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it...
So I stand by the door.