Shaman’s Life: The Hero’s Journey
The life of the shaman takes place throughout the hero’s journey, which was established by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in five main stages. Are:
1) The early conventional life of the shaman;
2) The crisis, or call to adventure and to wake up;
3) discipline and training;
4) Culmination of the search for enlightenment, death and rebirth; and
5) The final phase of return and contribution to society.
Shamans were the world’s first spiritual explorers. They laid the foundations for what we now know as the spiritual path to enlightenment, the heroic quest for the grail, the journey to death and resurrection – that is, as Joseph Campbell called it, the hero’s journey.
In the words of Roger Walsh, shamans were the first to “systematically explore and cultivate their inner world and use their knowledge and images for the benefit of their people.”
They were the first to be dissatisfied with the daily life of waking consciousness, the first to renounce acceptance of the superficial and plain reality of things, the first to blindly step into the world beyond.
Spurred by the call of the helper spirits, or by his own curiosity and inner questions, the shaman set out on the path of discovery. This path plunged them into a strange world of visions, dreams, and the inner realities of the soul.
Everyone who has embarked on this path since then has followed in the footsteps of the shamans who came before us.
In short, the trip is something like this:
1) The early conventional life of the hero:
Here the hero happily ignores that culture is an illusion. Accept the beliefs, morals, and conventional limitations set by your society.
The task of the hero is to go beyond these limitations. It is questioning your own beliefs as well as the moral foundations of your society. As Roger Walsh explains, this “requires facing internal fears and external social sanctions that limit and paralyze our capacities” (Walsh).
However, first things first, the hero must realize that there are fears that must be faced and beliefs that must be questioned. This is accomplished by …
2) The crisis, or call to adventure and awakening:
At some point, the hero’s normal daily life is challenged by a crisis or an encounter with the unknown that calls into question previous beliefs.
This crisis can take many forms. For the shaman, it was often the appearance of a strange illness, a visit from within a dream, a powerful vision, or a confrontation with death. Whatever form it takes, “this challenge reveals the limits of cultural thought and life, and urges the hero [the shaman] beyond them “(Walsh).
Once the crisis, or the call, comes, the shaman is faced with a choice. Accept the call and take those first blind steps towards an unknown stranger, or suppress the crisis and try to live a normal life again as if none of it happened.
The call, however, never really goes away. That feeling of dissatisfaction and discomfort lasts forever, and most shamans who try to reject the call either go crazy or die.
Those who accept face an equally difficult but infinitely more rewarding path.
3) Discipline and training:
The next step for the shaman is to find and acquire a teacher.
A teacher can be both internal and external. For the shaman, the teacher often took the form of a guide or inner spirit. Just as often, shamans were trained and educated by other shamans in their community.
Whatever form they take, the teacher initiates the future shaman into a program of discipline, both physical and mental, to develop the will and to alter the ordinary, that is, comfortable, state of mind of the shaman. This is so that your mind can open up to new possibilities and modes of consciousness. Such disciplines may include fasting, sleep deprivation, physical exertion, isolation, or exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures.
The goal and effect of these disciplines is to change the way the mind perceives reality.
4) Culmination of the search: death and rebirth:
The search culminates in enlightenment or a life-changing breakthrough.
This can take the form of a vision, a special perception or, and this is more common in the shamanic experience, an experience of death and rebirth.
Again, whatever form it takes, the end effect is the same: “an understanding of one’s deepest nature and a resulting self-transformation” (Walsh).
5) The final phase of return and contribution to society:
Having healed himself, the shaman is now spiritually equipped for the task of healing the world, that being his immediate community.
While the search itself was a departure from society towards its deepest and inner self, the search ends with a return to society to share and give what was learned and obtained on the journey.
This story of the shaman’s development, the hero’s journey, is essentially a description of human history. The experience of an artist, a teacher, a scientist, a writer, the experience of any human story worth telling, follows this same general pattern. An encounter with a crisis or a problem, and then, through the work of solving it, the discovery of something profound that can benefit the whole world.
The hero of the hero’s journey is the one who brings something true and valuable to this, our shared human reality, from the alternate reality of our own inner self.
This is the great spiritual work and it is the essence of shamanic life.