Just before the holidays, SO and I were sitting at the kitchen table discussing judgments and expectations regarding Shamans. SO mentioned how after listening to the women speak about me when she went to her first Moonlodge, she expected me to be much older than I was. People spoke of me having the kind of wisdom she only encountered when dealing with people with old age. “No even,” she corrected. SO talked about how the ladies seemed in awe of me. She explained that before I even walked into the room she had extremely high expectations. I definitely didn’t fit the image she had created for herself.
I remember telling my husband during the course of the last two decades that my line of work would get easier once I’d reached old age. The more wrinkles and white hair the better for me. Ironically, people have huge expectations concerning the looks and behaviors of shamanic, traditional medicine people. In many cases anthropologists and their research fuel these expectations. Because traditional medicine people believe in oral tradition and rarely write books much of the information that is shared about their journey is relayed by scientists who very often have a different perspective.
SO just finished her master’s degree in Anthropology. She studied community living and sacred circle tradition. When SO talked about Shamans in class other students always rigidly stated: “Real shamans live in the bush.” They can’t live in the city, they can’t shop in a mall, they can’t have a car, and they can certainly not appear on parent-teacher night to discuss the academic progress of their children. Spouses, children, pets and mundane living aren’t discussed in books on Shamans and so it’s assumed these individuals don’t have families. Shamans are eccentric, non-ordinary people who journey to non-ordinary realms and speak to spirit. I think the most unrealistic statement I’ve come across through the years is that “authentic shamans should not ever ask you for money in exchange for the teachings or healings they bring to you and your life.”
I believe there are many ways to understand the saying: “Shamans should give of themselves and their abilities freely.”
In the 21st century we have massage therapists and psychologists for example who charge 80$/hr., double that for a medical specialist; but we ask a Shaman who is often expected to do miracles to do it for free. An electrician or plumber will charge 100$ in traveling expenses and they haven’t even given an estimate or a diagnosis of the problem yet. A lawyer’s 300$ an hour fee doesn’t even cover the photocopies of any of the documents. What about the money we give a street meter just so we can keep a spot for our car while we shop; but a Shaman for some reason is expected to give it all for free.
Where did this absurd expectation come from and why is it often the first comment people make?
Believe it or not this expectation actually comes from stories, which were shared through Oral tradition. Shaman initiates are expected to learn about generosity, humility and detachment. During the initiation, they are constantly challenged by the most phenomenal characters, events or situations to make sure that they develop these attributes. These experiences make for the most incredible stories, which are meant to inspire the people of the community. In the end, one of the most important lessons that a Shaman initiate learns is to devote to the Sacred Circle; commit to the teachings given to them by the ancestors; and believe in Great Spirit, the cosmos, or what many call the dreaming. They are not supposed to depend on people (individuals or society) or conventional ways of surviving. This is why they live according to the saying: “My life is an unconditional gift to others: Mother Earth, community etc…”
For years, I watched my elders, traditional medicine people, literally struggle with heating bills; eating junk food because they didn’t have enough money to pay the price of meat and vegetables. Yet, they were always present at the ceremonies; always unconditionally giving to those who came knocking at the door for healing and learning. In too many cases, I was horrified by their suffering and didn’t understand how people could actually believe that “it was OK to not give them money in exchange for their guidance and help.” EC, a Passamaquody elder, teacher, shaman and special friend of mine often spoke about her shame and guilt towards having made the choice to not take any students or initiates through the years. She talked about being angry and resentful towards many of the people who approached her sisters (also medicine women) for teachings.
“People take but they don’t often give back,” she would say to me. She had enough stories to back up her words; but understood that it also spoke of personal issues she still needed to sort through.
Traditionally when Shamanism was the main belief system for communities, it was understood that the community as a whole cared for the Shaman or Medicine People. Food, blankets, wood for fire and even clothing were exchanges for healing, teachings and ceremony. It wasn’t something that the Shaman or Sorcerer expected, it was simply the order of things: It realistically made sense. It followed the way of the Wheel.
I met a Mayan traditionalist a few years back who talked to me about the Sorcerers and Shamans of his village. AF said that sometimes in exchange for particular healings the Medicine People would request long term commitment from specific villagers which often demanded a life time devotion. Such contracts were never broken because some individuals feared the consequences; but also because the work of these Medicine People was considered priceless. Traditionally communities sheltered their Medicine People by providing them with land and a house. They would also provide some of their children to help with cooking and household chores. It was seen as good fortune to be close to a Shaman and a Sorcerer. The people believed that they could heal all kinds of diseases which attacked the physical body, the mind and the spirit. While visiting California last year I learnt that Shamans were often executed if they couldn’t heal the people in their community. Nobody liberally called themselves Shaman or Sorcerer because if they couldn’t back up their allegations they could end up dead. Those who ended up with the title were most definitely worthy of it.
In traditional shamanic communities individuals were chosen in childhood to walk the path of the Shaman. Elders and Medicine People could recognize in infants the potential of them walking a Shaman’s path. An elder once said to me: “The aura around Shaman babies is like a halo of pure white light around the whole body.” Some Medicine People speak of particular characteristics or abilities; which can be identified in childhood; while others will mention dreams and visions that speak of these babies as chosen ones. Still today there are traditionalists who can recognize shaman potential in newborns, children, teens or grown adults. It’s always been understood that the word Shaman is not connected to humanity; but rather it’s an independent energy that exists in nature and that has access to eternal time and space. It moves through trees, rivers, clouds, animals, insects and humans alike without discrimination. For years, it gives glimpses of itself – small moments of perfection that allow us to notice that an individual is being called to be of service to something that follows rules out of this World.
It makes no sense to approach this energy with any kind of limiting expectations, or judgments. Partially because it is attached to the unknown and to mystery it is meant to be unrestricted, and undefined. It’s meant to be explored and to be experienced. I think that it scares us to approach people who have a consciousness of the world that we do not have and who can push us to journey into a world that we are unaware exists. It’s one thing to play around with possibilities but it’s a whole other thing to be pushed to see, to understand and to make a choice: To believe. We like to think we are in control of our reality and it’s terrifying to face the fact that we are not that important in the whole scheme of creation or that perhaps, we are more important than we ever imagined. Thus, the paradox.
In 1998, I was a keynote lecturer for a Women’s Healing and Empowerment Conference in St-Andrews, N.B. The night before I was due to speak I was approached by one of the committee members with the proposal to spend a day with a Passamaquoddy elder. I thought it was a dream come true. I remember staying up all night imagining my meeting with EC; hoping that we would hit it off. One of my fears was that I wouldn’t be able to pick her out in the crowd. We were meant to meet for breakfast. I was quite surprised when I walked into the hotel restaurant and recognized her right away as if I had known her my whole life. It was uncanny. We had so much in common as we shared each other’s stories. EC was an ordinary woman with paranormal abilities, extraordinary attitudes and shaman wisdom. She was both magic and human.
What was incredible with this meeting was the fact that she had dreamt about me and actually went out of her way to find me. Synchronicity and destiny obviously brought us together. She never doubted her dream and she followed it all the way through. For me this was huge!!! Rather than being limited by expectations and judgments she surrendered to the unknown and allowed spirit to bring us together. EC taught me to believe and eventually she pushed me to embark on the greatest journey of my life. She showed me that the Shaman’s path is one of magic, beauty, abundance and devotion. There was something incredibly familiar in what I experienced that day and at the same time there was something unbelievably unknown. In the eight years that followed I packed 500 years of experience and learning. It showed me that what we understand and believe in the Western world is so very different than what is offered in the Shamanic universe.
Letting go of expectations can open a world of possibilites.