An Introduction to Neoshamanism
The term “neoshamanism,” or “new shamanism,” refers to just that—newer forms of shamanism that have been adapted from traditional indigenous practices in order to meet the needs of the modern world. The studies of famous twentieth-century anthropologists including Mircea Eliade, Carlos Castaneda, and Michael Harner popularized the idea of seeking spiritual wisdom from indigenous sources, and shamanism grew extremely fashionable alongside the hippie counterculture movement of the 1960s. But while there is unquestionably a great depth of spiritual wisdom available in these traditions, there has also been a significant debate on the best practices to honor these indigenous practices without commodifying them when approaching them from a present-day standpoint.
What is the difference between shamanism and neoshamanism?
Neoshamanism comes from the merging of traditional shamanic practices with modern practices like psychotherapeutic techniques, taking the original essence of a tradition and reworking it from a more secular, contemporary mindset. Essentially, neoshamanism is a distilled, rationalized, and democratized form of traditional shamanic practice, made more accessible to the average individual who is seeking to experience a deeper level of personal well-being and connection to the world around them.
We can see the main difference between shamanism and neoshamanism in how the two sects treat their shared core practice: interaction with the spirit realm. Often, the focus of neoshamanic practitioners’ journeys are more on the psychospiritual well-being of the individual—as opposed to traditional shamans, who journey to fulfill a role in their communities as the keeper of balance and cosmic order between the physical and the spiritual. Many neoshamanic practitioners also relate differently to the spirit world than their indigenous counterparts do, considering spiritual entities as either positive or neutral in nature—which is in sharp contrast to the common indigenous belief in malicious or evil spirits.
Traditional indigenous shamans also go through a rigorous training and initiation, and are “chosen” both by their community and by the spirits, which usually make their choice known through some sort of difficult personal trial or affliction. Symptoms of what Western people would consider mental illness are often thought to be the spirits claiming a person for the shamanic path. Many modern shamanic practitioners also regard such experiences as their calling to shamanism, but their training is rarely as traumatic or dangerous as that of their traditional counterparts.
Is neoshamanism considered cultural appropriation?
It often depends on the context. Frequently, neoshamanic practices are created by people with direct ties to an indigenous cultural heritage or lineage. These people update the traditions of their ancestors for a more modern context, but in a way that hopefully enhances their original intent. In cases like the creation of Santo Daime—a religion in Brazil that combines the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament with elements from Christian, African, and South American spirituality—the fusion of shamanic practice with other common local influences happened fairly organically and was widely accepted.
Things become more problematic when those hailing from Western cultures start adapting shamanic practices without clear ties to the originating culture. Members of Native American communities in particular have criticized the use of their sacred traditions in a neoshamanic context, asserting that those who use such practices without a legitimate connection to their origins—especially in exchange for money—are charlatans, or “plastic shamans.”
Since there are shamanic practices related to nearly every cultural heritage, many practitioners suggest exploring your personal cultural roots for shamanic traditions before adopting the practices of another group. If you do choose to follow a practice outside of your own heritage, be sure to do your homework on its origins and be respectful of its history. Don’t call yourself an expert or seek any monetary gain in relation to it without significant and long-standing tutelage from someone with a genuine connection to the tradition.
Are there different types of neoshamanism?
Most forms of neoshamanism draw on the cultural traditions of Europe and the Americas, but there are shamanic practices tied to nearly every culture worldwide. The most well-known practices come from Amazonian, Mesoamerican, and Native American cultures, but others are Siberian, Norse, Australian, etc. Some approaches are decidedly eclectic, drawing on multiple traditions; others focus on one culture’s practices only.
Is there a god in neoshamanism?
As neoshamanism is considered more of a spiritual practice than a religion, it is not tied to any specific deity. That being said, various gods are sometimes called upon, depending on the originating culture of the neoshamanic practitioner.
More common in neoshamanism is the practice of working with spirit guides or helping spirits. Spirit guides are entities dwelling in the spirit realm that can guide or protect a practitioner. They can be ancestors, animals, or even beings of light, operating as advisors or mediators on behalf of the individual within the spirit world.
What are typical practices in neoshamanism? How do you go on a shamanic journey?
Here’s a list of some common neoshamanic practices:
- Drumming journey In a drumming journey, participants enter a trance state while listening to the repetitive beat of a shamanic drum. Oftentimes the shaman will do a guided meditation journey to a certain area of the spirit world or with a particular question to answer. Journeys can be accomplished in a drum circle with multiple people drumming, or solo, with a drum track and/or guided meditation.
- Soul retrieval Most shamans believe that when a person goes through a traumatic event, they can lose a piece of their soul, leading to symptoms of depression, bodily dissociation, or chronic illness. Some modern shamans journey to the spirit world for a client in order to help them restore the piece of themselves that was lost due to trauma.
- Vision quests, sweat lodges, and other altered states of consciousness To visit the spirit realm, shamanic practitioners will sometimes take psychedelics such as peyote or psilocybin mushrooms to go on a vision quest; other times, they will stress their bodies in such a way that it’s easier to attain an altered state, such as with a sweat lodge or with certain types of breathing and meditation techniques.