What is shamanism?

In societies across the world, the shaman is the healer of the community. 

To access healing and guidance for people, a traditional shaman enters the spirit realms by altering their consciousness (for example, by ingesting certain plants or drumming at high speed) in a way that allows them to ‘see’ the energetic world of the client.

In this vision, or journey, they are helped by spirits. It is the spirit guides and helpers that do the work, not the shaman (or shamanic practitioner). The shaman’s role is to be a channel for this guidance from other realms.

A shamanic practitioner in the West uses many of the same techniques for accessing healing and guidance as a traditional shaman, including drumming to bring about an altered state of consciousness to gain access to the spirit realms.

Whereas Western medicine treats physical or mental ill health as purely a matter of the body and mind, in shamanism it is understood that people have spirits (as do all living things).

Shamanic healing takes place on the spiritual level, not the physical, mental or emotional levels (although all of these levels can be affected by shamanic healing).

The spiritual level is seen as the place where dis-ease originates, and so it is here that it must be treated, at its root.

For that reason, in a shamanic session you don’t need to talk at length about traumatic events or things that have happened in the past. Unlike therapy, there is no need to come every week for months or years. Sometimes, one session is all that is needed; sometimes, several sessions can be helpful.

Psychotherapy vs shamanic healing: how are they different?

I offer a comparison of different aspects of psychotherapy and shamanism here not because I believe that shamanism is better than psychotherapy, or even comparable (I believe they can both be brilliant in different situations), but to help people who don’t know what to expect from a shamanic session who might have experienced therapy.


  • Works on the level of the mind
  • Logical: current difficulties are thought to originate from an identifiable cause in the client’s life
  • Aim is to function well in ‘normal society’
  • Talking and feeling
  • Follows a set formula (e.g. 50 minutes of talking)
  • Usually medium to long term (i.e. months/years)

Shamanic healing

  • Works on the level of spirit/energy/soul
  • Magical – current difficulties are seen to originate in the realm of energy/spirit and healing and guidance can be found there
  • Aim is to restore the soul to wholeness and the client to full power
  • Some talking, but the spirits do the work in non-ordinary reality. There may also be ritual, ceremony and the use of objects
  • Some structure, but can unfold spontaneously
  • Usually short term, or sporadic sessions over time

Shamanism is a way of life that recognises our true nature as part of the world; part of nature, just like the trees, rivers and the Earth herself. Our human bodies, and even our minds, are a natural creation too.

Shamans do not have their magic ‘within’ them. Shamans are a conduit for helping spirits, and it is these that provide the insight, healing or guidance for the shaman’s people.