The Path of Shamanic Initiation

Shamanic initiation often begins with some circumstance that essentially signifies an inability on the part of a would-be shaman to ‘lead a normal life’ – whatever that might mean in the context of the society that s/he lives in.

Sometimes this ‘inability’ manifests as a severe illness; then, the process of initiation would involve self-healing of the malady, a regaining of equilibrium. This can also happen through grappling with what Western minds would term mental illnesses.

Separation and Turning Inward

The identification with the animal world, also, which is such a distinctive motif in shamanic lore,  relates to the ways in which a prospective medicine man separates from the human community during the time of initiation.

Animal consciousness brings us into the heart of nature – and, in the process, draws us away from the belief systems and customs of the culture that we’ve thus far been living in.

The vision must be reached in this way, through separation from the human community for a time, because the healing that the shaman is eventually able to offer involves those aspects of consciousness that the community lacks, and longs for.

Refusing the Initiatory Moment

Some are unwilling to embark upon the path of shamanism in the first place, even though their souls clamor for it – a motif that’s also echoed in Joseph Campbell’s exploration of The Hero’s Journey: the refusal of the Call.

In Fire Thief Reborn (the fourth volume in The Edge of the Known series), narrator Brandon Chane describes his own personal experience with this initiatory moment. He is not aware, at the time, that this is what he is in fact undergoing.

He had believed that he could simply renounce music and lead something akin to a “normal life”, not realizing (or refusing to acknowledge) his own innate need for contact with the spirit world and to serve as a kind of mediator between that world and the one that most of us call “the real”.

This denial has created a troubling circumstance for him: He seems to have attained all the things that he thought would confer normal human happiness, and yet his spirit is restless and dissatisfied.

And as the music began to vibrate over the grass and through the heads of all of us, I was reminded again of the peculiar pain that accompanies the too-full moment. It is that aching inside that you can’t quite reach and massage with your mental fingers; the sense that your poignant love of the world, fragile though it seems, is too big to be contained within your breast.

It has to spill over, like flood waters surmounting the tops of sluice gates, so you siphon it through your songs or poems or stories, knowing that this release is only momentary. And not only that, but the very vehicle that you’ve chosen to express it then turns around and whets the sharp edge of your sensitivity so that you seem to need that release again, more than ever. 

Those Who Are Born For It…

Typically, the shamanic vocation could not be faked. Nor can one simply deny it. A shaman’s reputation rests upon his or her ability to heal, to ‘do good works’; to provide evidence of power and spiritual discernment.  The above passage describes a moment in which Brandon is beginning to realize that his attempted ‘refusal’ has failed him. In order to find the true happiness and spiritual equilibrium that has thus far eluded him, he must step into his own power more fully: Accept, and respond to, his Call.