Shamanism exists in many varied forms all over the globe from Australia to the Americas, from Siberia to the Polar regions and has its roots in prehistory. The shaman is a spiritual leader who in a ritualized, ceremonial context enters a trance state and communes with the spirits of animals, trees and the deceased, as well as spirits who inhabit planes or parallel realities quite unlike our physical universe. The term ‘shaman’ was first popularised by Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen. Illustrating an account of his Siberian travels in 1692, in the ‘Priest of the Devil’ he has given the figure cloven feet, reflecting what was often perceived as the demonic quality of shamanism.
If he is to have a long life expectancy, the shaman must be very skilled in enlisting the aid of benevolent entities and defending himself against evil ones – not to mention being able to tell the difference. These entities have access to information about the human condition that we do not – at least, not directly. The spirits may be able to diagnose a patient’s illness and prescribe natural earthly treatments. They can also help the shaman by carrying out spiritual healing on the patient, restoring harmony between the spiritual body and the physical body. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), one of the foremost researchers of comparative shamanism, describes the shaman’s trance state as ‘ecstasy’: he or she is literally traveling through ecstasy, co-opting the assistance of its more amenable inhabitants often as part of the healing process of individual human sufferers, or perhaps to resolve difficulties facing the community at large.
It is almost always the case that the shaman will ingest some psychoactive substance to help enter the ‘ecstatic’ trance state although there are many examples of people with the ability to enter such a state at will. (A well-known example is Edgar Cayce, who never claimed any shamanic status but seemed to be tapping into similar energies). It is less usual for the participants in shamanic ceremonies to ingest the same psychoactive substances as the shaman.
Throughout history, it has been demonstrated that Shamanic practice in combination with traditional, natural medicine has, for millennia, been the only healthcare system available to past generations. The role of the shaman, as well as the medicinal plants, has been of vital importance in maintaining the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the population.
Around the world, each different people has their own particular conception of shamanism, with different rites, practices and ceremonies. Even with the indigenous cultures of Peru, shamanism is conceived in various different ways. For the Shipibos, shamanism is a structured collection of knowledge both material and spiritual, which for thousands of years has conserved the many indigenous cultures, by helping people to find the most effective means of balancing their physical, mental or emotional, and spiritual states.
Over thousands of years, shamanism in the Amazonian rainforest has developed an unparalleled sophistication owing to the incredibly rich bio-diversity of the jungle: the Amazon contains over half of all plant species on earth, an estimated 98% yet to be fully analyzed in the laboratory. Nobody knows how many plant species there are in the world: biologists’ best guesses vary from 3 to 30 million. And yet the ancestral wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon equips the genuine shaman to perform apparently miraculous feats of healing and transformation routinely. It is very clear that much of the vegetation thriving in the rainforest, particularly the medicinal plants, contain a wealth of complex bioenergetic substances whose active ingredients constitute excellent treatments for a wide range of diseases.
TRADITIONAL SHAMANIC PRACTICES IN THE SHIPIBO CULTURE
Given that we will be entering a spiritual world unfamiliar to most people, to help them understand the spiritual dimension of nature, and so that they may see, appreciate and feel in their hearts these spiritual forces, let us explain a few points to familiarize them with certain aspects of Shipibo shamanism, such as the behavioral requirements and the customary procedure of spiritual apprenticeship.
For the Shipibos, shamanism is the most effective means to maintain the physical and energetic balance of living beings. So, what is a shaman? The Shaman is a wise man and spiritual guide of human beings. He draws his many different techniques and methodologies of healing the physical and mental bodies both from his knowledge of the many healing powers of medicinal plants and his capacity to travel in other spiritual dimensions unknown to most people.
We can certainly say that a shaman is a special person, a visionary with much knowledge, for he knows the very essence of spirit, and he can guide you to develop your personality. In the heart of the Amazon rainforest, this most ancient of arts is practiced by way of the ingestion of the Ayahuasca brew: “oni” or “nishi” in Shipibo.
Shipibo shamanism – or “curanderismo” (healing) – is closely linked to the sacred plant, the Ayahuasca vine, whose ritualistic use allows people to gain first-hand knowledge and mastery of the various arts of white medicine, to recover from ill health and regain the tranquillity of their souls, whilst, at the same time, entering a different dimension, that is non-physical, or spiritual, where there is a new world of beauty, harmony, and wisdom to be discovered. These ancestral practices help us to understand our very existence and the importance of living in peace both with ourselves and our family entourage, as well as fully appreciating the blessings of love and joy.
However, to enjoy these blessings, the participant must have a good mental disposition and an open mind – that is, free of any prejudices, and has to make a genuine effort to accompany the shaman on his journey. The healing procedure, be it physical, mental or spiritual, and the nature of the diet which one must observe with each individual shaman, are not rigid guidelines that must be followed religiously in every case: the methods of each shaman will vary to a degree depending on the particular apprenticeship that he received from his masters both shamanic and spiritual.
Part of the process of acquiring such knowledge in Shipibo shamanism and becoming a force for healing requires the frequent use of the many benefits and teaching properties of Ayahuasca, because its effects enable people to visualize spiritually many different astral beings, such as the Mother of the Rivers and the Plains and the energies of the Sun and the Moon, as well as other luminous entities, and with the guidance of these, to correct mental and spiritual imbalances, and to diagnose a person’s ailments.
What we explain here can only serve as a general guide on Shipibo shamanism, as opposed to fixed rules of spiritual etiquette; we merely wish to offer this information as a general ‘work aid’.