I grew up surrounded by (mostly evangelical) Protestant Christianity. Belief in a dominant God, male, embodied through Jesus, and surrounded by angels in heaven, was the whole structure of holy divinity. Unlike Catholicism, there were no saints representing different elements of divinity and connection. Only God, Jesus, and the angels. The only way to connect with these presences was through church, through reading the Bible, and through prayer. Prayer was all about asking for God to care for you and answer your prayers, but answers were never direct. Answers came in the form of listening to teachings from the Bible in church, and through reading the Bible itself. Divinity was far away, impersonal, and inaccessible to a simple human believer.

I left my birthplace at 18, heading to the city to expand my horizons as a musician, attending a world class music school that attracted students from around the world. I still wonder about the forces within myself that allowed me to stay open to new ideas instead of retreating into the familiarity of tight religious dogma. I was exposed to people from all kinds of different ways of life, belief systems, cultures, and languages. And I loved it. My heart soared as I was free to explore all spiritual traditions and find my own connections and answers and questions without the heavy weight of judgment coming from those who believed they already had the monopoly on the one-true-right-path.

When I began to explore the traditions of Peru in preparation for my first pilgrimage there in 2005, I was blown away by animist traditions, and animist ways syncretically blended with Catholicism as well. Devotion to the Earth, to the Spirits of Nature, to Saints… all blended together in ways that I’d never seen in my home culture in the US. In the years since, I’ve noted the countless ways that many Earth-honoring traditions survived the trauma of colonialism through blending and merging their own deities with the honored saints of the Catholic church. It became clear to me, watching the parades of the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen in Pisac, Peru, that the colorful patterns woven into textiles, brightly painted masks, and Virgin Mary icon being paraded through the streets were all a delightful worship of the Divine Mother, Pachamama. I knew I’d found my home.

In the years since that first encounter, I’ve gone deep into practices that span various animist cultures, many of which fall under the label “shamanism.” These practices called me because I loved Mother Nature with all my heart, and finding systems of spirituality that were anchored in deep relational reverence with All Living Things brought me to feel a greater connection to myself, and to Life. In contrast with the practices of Christian devotion and prayer, which asked me to simply have blind faith in something I’d never seen, encountered, or related with directly, these animist/shamanic practices asked me to cultivate a deep presence of listening, remembering that the whole of Life was available for direct communication and communion, if I’d simply turn down my human-centric worldview a bit. Following the path of shamanic healing, first for myself and my own spiritual growth, and eventually in service of others, I found practices that awakened me to the inherent interdependence of all things. Learning the practice of prayer as a deep form of listening ~ as opposed to the Christian way of amassing a laundry list of personal desires ~ brought me to understand that the whole of Life is open for direct, immediate, personal connection should I choose to open my heart and mind in this way. And of course, discernment became key as I learned that the New Age belief system that declared everything good and benevolent and beautiful in the whole universe was a nice, though hopeless delusion ~ cultivating wisdom and maintaining strong boundaries are essential when opening oneself to commune directly with Life’s diverse Spirit forces.

A guide is a non-corporeal spirit being that is wise, benevolent, well, and willing to offer support to a person in a relational way. Guides come in many forms ~ animals, insects, plants, fungi, elemental forces of nature, angelic beings, otherworldly beings, ancestors of blood and lineage, archetypal beings, deities from various traditions, spirits of land and place, and more. While the concept of animal totems and plant spirits are not uncommon in modern western cultures, so much of the time people simply rely on personal preferences or books/card decks to interpret the “meaning” of these guides. While it can be helpful to start exploring hawk or bear with books and websites, it is far more important to come into relationship with the guide who’s shown up in your life by setting aside time to listen, meditate, contemplate, and journey to ask for more understanding. In the same way, using a reference to discern the healing properties of lavender or violet can be useful, seeing the plant as a teacher and companion, and learning its medicine ways directly through direct connection forges a much stronger relationship. We modern humans are so accustomed to learning everything in a scientific way, or from a book or human teacher, we’ve forgotten the power that is available through direct experience itself. Learning to work with guides requires the cultivation of a quiet mind, openness, and the willingness to set aside skepticism as guidance emerges. It is only through trusting the relationship between ourselves and our guides that we grow in animist/shamanic practices.

Practice: Find a place near your home that you can access easily each day. Preferably, this is a place with at least some connection to the non-human world, even if it is a small yard or park, or a tree near your window. Set the intention to come to this place for a minimum of 30 days, no matter the weather. Bring a notebook or art pad (if you’re artistically inclined), and make a practice of noticing. Notice the colors, textures, sounds, fragrances, light and dark, and changes that happen from day to day. Make note of these things. Don’t set an agenda to “come and write” or “come and draw” ~ simply capture what you notice as you are spontaneously inspired. Also, notice how things change within you as you return to this place every day. How are you different each day ~ how do you feel in your body, in your mind, in your emotions, in your energy? Over these 30 days, notice how you respond to this practice… does it feel like a welcome shift in your day? A relief? A burden? A nuisance? Notice everything, and keep showing up. At the end of these 30 days (or sooner, if you’re inclined), create some kind of offering of gratitude to bring to this place in acknowledging its gifts to you. This could be a simple offering of herbs or flowers, or something more specific as you’re called ~ simply make sure that your offering will not burden the environment in any particular way, or cause harm to the various beings living in your special spot. Challenge: Continue this practice for 3 months, 6 months, or a year!

Shamanism 101: Guides

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