Shamanism Finds New Followers in the Modern World
By Qiling Wang
The South Austin yoga studio grew quiet as Nate Long played a melody on his flute.
Under his guidance, the 30 or so people formed a circle and began a chant, welcoming the spirits from the four directions, beginning with “Welcome, East, you are the origin of life” and ending with “Welcome, Earth.”
Group leaders began to beat on drums in their laps as the lights dimmed, with the tempo speeding up and slowing down. The rhythm is intended to help people enter a deep meditative state, so they can connect to the spiritual world, they explained.
The group that gathered on a recent Wednesday night was practicing neoshamanism, a modern-day adaptation of an ancient belief system. In the original form, shamans served as bridges between the spirit world and the real world, entering trance-like states — sometimes with the aid of hallucinogenic drugs — to perform rituals to heal people of physical or spiritual illnesses.
There are no shamans or drugs in the modern version; leaders call themselves practitioners or spiritual healers and lead people through “journey,” a core practice in which the soul leaves the body and travels to the spiritual dimension.
While data are lacking, both practitioners and academics say neoshamanism is attracting more interest as people search for new forms of spiritual fulfillment.
“Alternative forms of spirituality that are outside what would be considered traditional religious institutions do seem to be expanding,” said Chad Seales, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “People are becoming more aware of it. ”
He said one reason could be that some people think that indigenous religious or spiritual practices have more authenticity than, say, Christianity.
A 2014 survey report from Pew Research documented the growing search for alternative forms of spirituality apart from organized religion. The percentage of Americans who said they were not affiliated with any religion rose from 16.1 percent in 2007 to 22.8 percent seven years later. Movements such as Wicca were growing at a rapid rate.
And even within traditional religion, some people still turn to alternative spiritual practices. One in seven Hispanics, of any religion, had used the services of a shaman or other healer, Pew said.
Gerry Starnes, who founded Austin Shamanism more than a decade ago, said he’s seen more interest. The group has 2,501 practitioners, according to its Meetup page, and meets Monday and Wednesday nights at the Clear Spring yoga studio to explore journey skills and healing methods.
Starnes, a shamanic healer whose spiritual name is Falcon, previously was a counselor after earning a master’s degree in school psychology from Texas State University in 1977. Before long, he said he realized that something was missing in traditional therapy.
“If I talk about the world of trauma, we know absolutely that the talk therapy doesn’t work,” he said. “Talk therapy [believes] that if we understand something, it’s fixed, which is not true. The real point of why talk therapy doesn’t work completely is that trauma is a soul wound, and talk therapy doesn’t go there.”
As he explored a variety of teachings and beliefs for healing, Starnes said he found shamanism to be the most effective practice in what he calls “soul retrieval” after someone suffers a trauma.
“The most appealing thing is its accessibility, in the sense that anybody can do it,” he said. “Shamanism is related to every religion on the planet. The idea that everything is alive and sacred is world-changing.”
Starnes said he works with people from various religious backgrounds, including fundamentalist Christians, by translating shamanism into their language. The first thing many of the fundamentalists who come to his center say is, “I am a Christian,” Starnes said. “Great, so am I. And we just go from there.”
Roy Griffin, 73, who joined the circle two years ago, grew up in the Presbyterian Church. Early on, he said, he became aware of the limitations of the worldview that the only real things are material.
“That’s simply not a satisfactory explanation of the way that the world works,” he said.
After attending some workshops from the Foundation for Shamanic studies, he said, “I decided to look around to see if there was a local group that is involved in shamanic practices, and I found this group.”
He now regularly practices shamanism and said he is Christian “only in the most extended sense.”
Nancy Adams, a former psychotherapist, has been a shamanic practitioner in Wimberley for more than 20 years.
“I found this work so much faster and so much better” than conventional therapy, she said. “When you go to a psychotherapist, you have to go week after week, month after month, even year after year maybe. But with this work, you could sometimes get down to the heart of the problem with one session.”
She grew up in a Baptist household but said, “I am spiritual person rather than a religious person. When I step outside, nature is my church.”
Modern shamanism is only a few decades old.
In the 1980s, Michael Harner, an American anthropologist, developed what he calls Core Shamanism, and later established the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley, Calif.
Modern shamanism has adopted practices, such as drumming and journey, from the traditional version that can be applied to daily life. A bundle of tobacco – a traditional shamanic material — was used during the journey circle at the yoga studio.
Starnes said that many people come and go from his shamanic community, and he is fine with that because he knows that shamanism is not the only way to the spiritual world.
“There are so many different teachings, and I really don’t judge any of them,” said Starnes. “People are looking for what works for them. That’s fine. I just want everybody to keep looking.”