What Is Shamanic Healing?

Table of Contents

Introduction to shamanism

Shamanism is a system for psychic, emotional, and spiritual healing and for exploration, discovery, and knowledge gathering about non-material worlds and states of mind.

Anthropologists have identified shamanistic practices in tribal cultures, ancient and modern, throughout the world. Shamanism is a "technique of ecstasy" (Mircea Eliade) in which the spirit of the shaman leaves the body and travels to communicate with spirit helpers and other beings for the purpose of obtaining knowledge, power, or healing. However, the shaman usually retains control over his or her body. In many cultures, a shaman is chosen or called, sometimes by healing him- or herself of a serious illness.

Shamanic journeying is an altered state of consciousness wherein you enter a realm called "non-ordinary reality." By journeying, you can gather knowledge and perform healing in ways that are not accessible in ordinary waking reality.

Shamanic healing is a process whereby a person journeys on behalf of another, and brings back information or instructions that can be used to provide psychic/emotional/spiritual healing to another person.

How does shamanism work?

Some people think that in shamanic journeying, the spirit leaves the body, and in shamanic healing, a person is being healed by spirit helpers.

Others think that shamanic journeying allows access to one's own intuition, which may otherwise be drowned out by the prattle of everyday thinking, or by anxiety; and that shamanic healing is a way of engaging a person's subconscious desires for healing.

I think that as long as it works (which it does, for many people), it doesn't much matter which way you explain it. Use the way that's most comfortable for you.

The shamanic view of health

In the system of shamanism that I work with, there are four aspects to psychic/emotional/spiritual health. If there is a problem with any of these aspects fails, shamanic techniques can be used to help restore strength.

Note that shamanic healing may not cure physical or psychological illness, but it may help one gain psychic energy that will allow one better to handle illness. Shamanic healing therefore is best used in conjunction with other treatments, not as a substitute for them.

1. Connection with a power animal

A power animal protects you physically and provides you with emotional support, wisdom, and vital energy.

Some people think a power animal is a spirit being that stays with you because it cares for you and enjoys being able to experience life in a physical body. Others think a power animal is a symbol for one's subconscious wisdom.

Almost everybody has a power animal; some have several. (Perhaps you had an "invisible animal friend" as a child or have always been fascinated with a particular kind of animal. This animal may be your power animal.)

A person may, in the course of life, lose contact with the power animal, thereby losing the animal's protection, wisdom, and energy. If you lose contact with your power animal, you may feel disspirited, you may become sick easily, or you may be accident-prone.

The shamanic healing technique of power animal retrieval can restore a person's connection to a power animal. A person can also journey to find his or her own power animal.

To maintain a connection with your power animal, take the time to learn about your animal, learn to feel its presence, communicate with it, and honor it by doing things that it enjoys.

2. Retaining one's life essence

Life essence is the energy that keeps you going, keeps you interested in life, in learning, and in challenge. Life essence keeps you healthy and contented and allows you to trust yourself.

However, in traumatic situations, whether they be ongoing (such as child abuse) or singular (such as an auto accident), a part of one's life essence can leave.

This is normal: it helps one avoid the full emotional effect of the trauma. Usually life essence returns once the danger and shock of the trauma are past.

But sometimes a person can't reconnect with zir life essence after such an event: part of the life essence is "lost."

A person who has lost part of zir life essence might feel lacking in energy, depressed, ill, untrusting. The person might feel an "energy leak," might become extremely involved in spiritual matters to the detriment of ordinary life, might become obsessed with the trauma, might feel something is missing.

A shamanic healer can find and retrieve one's life essence. This healing technique is called soul retrieval.

A person who reconnects with lost life essence often finds that life changes afterward.

3. Free flow of emotional and physical energy

Health requires a free flow of energy that one can use to accomplish one's desires in the world. But one's energy can become blocked in various ways.

People who have lost parts of their life essence, who have been ill, who have lost connection with a power animal, or who are regularly exposed to emotionally stressful situations are vulnerable to intrusions or "psychic infections" that block a person's connection with self or drain a person's energy.

An intrusion can be thought of either as a foreign energy being that takes up residence in a person's psychic body (a psychic infection), or as a psychic structure (an emotional wall or barrier) that a person built to keep zirself safe from harm, but that now is blocking some of his/her energy expression.

A person with an intrusion might feel drained or ill, might have aches and pains, might have nightmares or other fears.

A shamanic healer can find and remove intrusions and barriers in a healing ritual called extraction.

4. A sense of purpose

A sense of purpose is necessary to happiness. The person who loves and cares about the world and fellow beings, who wants to make some small part of the universe a better place, has a sense of purpose.

A person can find a sense of purpose in life by seeking knowledge and direction through shamanic journeys, divinations, and rituals. One can do this alone, or with a group of people engaged in similar quests. A shamanic healer or counselor can't find another person's purpose, but can help one seek and interpret information.

OK, so how do I do shamanism?

There are two keys to doing shamanism:
  1. Achieving the altered state of consciousness that allows you access to non-ordinary reality.
  2. Maintaining a purpose or intention for your journey.

Achieving an altered state of consciousness

The state of consciousness that allows you to access non-ordinary reality is one in which the waking mind is distracted or tuned out. There are many ways to achieve this: repetitious sound or movement, hypnosis, heat, sensory deprivcation, psychotropic drugs, maintaining a specific posture, lucid dreaming.

The method I use most frequently is repetitious sound in the form of a steady drumbeat.

Maintaining an intention

Shamanism is really a system of healing or obtaining knowledge, and it seems to work best when used for that purpose. Journeying tends to work best if it's undertaken on behalf of another person. In some cases, however, one can journey on one's own behalf, especially if one has a specific intention in mind. Journeying just for the purpose of "poking around in non-ordinary reality" doesn't seem to work as well for most people.

The best way I have found to maintain an intention is to write down or otherwise keep in mind a specific question or purpose as you begin your journey.

How to ask a question in a journey

For many people it's important to word the question precisely. This helps maintain your intention. Use positive language. Keep the question simple. Ask only one question at a time. Some people use a question in the form of an image.

Although everyone's journeys are different, in general I have found that a question of the form "what can I do to achieve this goal?" will receive the most specific and useful answer. Asking a question of the form "why does this situation exist?" may provide interesting information, but may not help you resolve a problem.

If you don't know what question to ask, you might try journeying with the question "What question should I ask?" or "Show me something I need to know right now."

What are these healing techniques, exactly?

There are many ways to do shamanic healing techniques, so I will provide only the most basic descriptions. I recommend you do your own research and exploration by reading, taking classes, talking to other people who practice shamanism, and journeying to find out more about these techniques.

Power animal retrieval

The shaman journeys with the intention of finding a power animal for the client. The shaman must make sure that what he or she finds is really the client's power animal -- don't go bringing back just any animal! The shaman brings the animal back to ordinary reality and gives it to the client, perhaps by blowing it into the client's body.

It is then the client's responsibility to journey to contact the animal and find out how best to work with the animal.

Soul retrieval

The shaman makes sure that the client has a support system in place, because strong emotional reactions can accompany or follow soul retrieval. Often the client is asked to have a friend or two present. The shaman makes sure the client is ready for the soul retrieval and is willing to have his or her life change.

Similar to the power animal retrieval, the shaman journeys with the intention of finding the client's lost life essence. The shaman must make sure that the soul parts found are willing to come back to ordinary reality. Sometimes this requires discussion, negotiation, or healing.

As with power animal retrieval, the shaman returns with the life essence and gives them to the client. A welcoming ceremony is performed. It is then the client's responsibility to learn how best to work with the retrieved life essence.


Often a shaman will work with a support system of several other shamans or drummers when performing an extraction. Some believe that the extracted energies can enter the shaman's body if the shaman is not well protected, and that noise and chanting will drive the energies away.

The shaman journeys or passes his/her hands over the client's body to detect intrusions. The intrusions may appear to the shaman as foreign objects or unpleasant creatures, or may be hot or cold spots in the client's body.

The shaman, with his/her spirit helpers, removes the intrusions. Often the intrusions are taken (in ordinary or non-ordinary reality) to a nearby body of water to neutralize them. The shaman may then fill the cleansed body with healing energies.

Recommended reading

  • The Foundation for Shamanic Studies conducts basic and advanced workshops in shamanic healing and shamanic counseling.
  • Michael Harner, The Way of the Shaman, 3d ed., Harper & Row, 1990
  • Sandra Ingerman, Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991
  • Sandra Ingerman, Welcome Home: Following Your Soul's Journey Home, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994

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    Last updated: 05 Aug 01
    Created by: Stef
    Copyright 1995 Stef Maruch