By Mitchell Clute
In the contemporary world, with its marvels of technology and science, we may think of shamanism—if we think of it at all—as an ancient, even primitive array of beliefs and rituals practiced by the indigenous peoples of the world.
But the shamanic path lasted so long for a reason: its wisdom helped keep our aboriginal ancestors alive and in balance. Shamanism offers the modern world a vision of wholeness and connection that is more vitally important now than ever before.
I recently sat down with don Oscar Miro-Quesada, a respected shamanic elder and teacher from Peru, to talk about what shamanism is and what it can offer us here in the contemporary West. He defines shamanism as “the art of seeking and maintaining balance between humans and nature, between the seen and the unseen.” When the two are out of balance, he believes, it can result in ecological crisis and human physical and psychological illness.
Miro-Quesada is in a perfect position to bridge the gap between ancient and modern. He apprenticed in two shamanic traditions in his native Peru—coastal and Andean—then created a cross-cultural shamanic tradition to make the core teachings of both lineages accessible to westerners.
Author of Lessons in Courage: Peruvian Shamanic Wisdom for Everyday Life, Miro-Quesada has worked closely with the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues, held positions in academia and created apprenticeship programs in shamanism that have trained hundreds of westerners in his Pachakuti Mesa Tradition.
Calmful Living: What does it mean to practice shamanism?
Miro-Quesada: The indisputable truth in my heart is that the birth of shamanism arose from the first impulse to care for something or someone other than oneself. Shamanism is simply giving expression to the intrinsic human nature to care, to have a feeling of compassion and concern for the well-being of another. In a nutshell, if you are able to love, to genuinely extend deep caring to another without concern for what you’re to receive in return, you are already on your way to becoming a shamanic practitioner.
OC: How does this definition of shamanism relate to the specific cultural practices of different indigenous peoples?
M-Q: A myriad of expressions can be orchestrated around our power to extend love beyond the self out into the world—thus the huge number of ceremonies, rituals, magical practices and plant medicines that characterize the culture-specific shamanic lineages. The particular expression of this impulse to care must have resonance with the people and culture you are part of. Symptoms of illness are symptoms of the state of one’s being, whether individual or communal; thus the actual healing rituals, in all shamanic lineages the world over, are really a culturally specific way to alleviate suffering or illness.
OC: What does shamanism tell us about our connection to the earth and its inhabitants?
M-Q: All genuine shamanic lifeways subscribe to the primacy of soul, of pure consciousness, of an animated spiritual universe. Just like a personal soul, this world soul experiences suffering, illness, pain, disease, and estrangement from the one interdependent web of relations that form its body. Therefore, healing our ecology is part and parcel of healing oneself and one’s human community.
If you heal a blade of grass, you’re healing the universe. If you help anything grow, you will always be welcomed into the broader relationship of the spiritual universe that lies beyond the world of form. This shamanic awareness is indispensable as an evolutionary salve for the estrangement we’re experiencing from the sacred dimensions of life. Thus Earth-centered spirituality needs to be at the center of all our initiatives—ecological restoration, social justice and the re-spiritualization of humankind.
OC: How can we begin to bring these shamanic ideas and practices into our daily lives, wherever we live?
M-Q: In my personal experience, we first have to understand that there is the great originating mystery, whether we call it God or simply the ultimate ground of being. This field of wisdom and sentience so far beyond our human individuality is our real home. Each day when you come out of dreaming, remember: enter back into relationship with this field of sentience. If you stay connected to that reality, then you can enter into relationship with the tree spirits, stone relatives, animal allies and all the spirit helpers in this vast universe.
To move in the world on a feeling level rather than a thinking level, it’s important to remain very attentive to your breath and feel the drum of the heartbeat beneath your sternum. That brings great alignment, and you realize that it’s all about love. Any time you touch into a creative process—whether it’s through art, love making, dancing, sculpting, singing, walks in nature—it deepens your shamanic awareness. In such moments, time is suspended and you can experience the true perfection and blessings of this moment. You lose yourself—and losing yourself is the greatest gift you can give humanity.
For more on don Oscar Miro-Quesada and his work, visit www.heartofthehealer.org