Practicing Shamanism as a White Person
I have completed two tracks of study at The Foundation of the Sacred Stream. One is Depth Hypnosis, and the other is Applied Shamanic Counseling. Applied Shamanic Counseling is a method by which the practitioner teaches the client how to journey shamanically and formulate questions directed toward their inner world. I’ve never doubted the efficacy of ASC, but as I got deeper and deeper into the program, I would get confused, disoriented, and sometimes my journeys would go nowhere. I’d be lying there, my eyes closed, listening to a drum track, lost in thought, or even sometimes falling asleep instead of journeying to my guides to help me understand a specific issue. Something was certainly up. I gave it a rest for a bit and stopped journeying until the issue became evident: I felt like shamanic practice is cultural appropriation. I’d had whispers of these thoughts throughout my entire training, but the ways it was helping me heal were so apparent, so I held on for a bit longer.
“Core shamanism,” is a phrase coined by Michael Harner which serves as the acknowledgement that every culture that has ever existed (apart from my own, currently) has practiced a type of shamanism that had elements of the three worlds (lower, middle, and upper) as well as ideas of soul + power retrieval. For a time, I was telling myself it was okay for me to practice in this fashion, because at some point along my ancestral line, there were people who honored and learned from the earth, and who likely practiced some form of shamanism (Hungary, Ireland, Austria, Scotland). In truth, I did not know if whatever form of earth-based religion they practiced obtained the same elements. In the past several weeks, I have done a deep dive into ancient Hungarian Shamanism.
In Jeno Fazekas’, Hungarian Shamanism, Material and History of Research, he elucidates the way both Hungarian folk traditions and buried items recovered, confirm that my shamanic education and the pre-Christian pagan practices of Hungary have many similarities. The lower, middle and upper worlds show up on “the tree of life” where the talto (shaman) would travel to, in an ecstatic state, while listening to a drum beat. Learning this information has provided me a stronger sense of connection to my Hungarian ancestors, and there also still exists a sense of emptiness. This is an excerpt from Fazekas’ paper:
“The Hungarians were converted to Christianity during the reign of the first Hungarian king, István the Holy (997-1038). But beneath the new official Church piety, the old belief lived on as a substratum.”
Wow, so the chasm between me and my ancestors who practiced earth-based spirituality is at least 1000 years long. That is maybe, give or take, 20 generations. I already know about five of them, so that leaves only 15 back. I can work with that.
Prior to Christian colonization of Hungary, there is evidence to suggest that the shaman, called a talto, was a sort of chiefly minister, whose shamanic practice derived out of the more widely-practiced (of that time) Animism. Put simply, Animism is the belief that all creatures, plants, objects, and places have a spirit. Translated from her book, Meseterepia (Fairy Tale Therapy), Orsolya Nemeth, writes:
“On the other hand – and this is a characteristic feature of Hungarian folk tales – the language of the tale has an inner code system which connects its listeners to the completeness of life. Because according to Hungarian folk tales, everything around us has a soul, be it a stone, a tree, a blade of grass, a flower, a river, a human, an animal or a supernatural being. This means that if a person is looking for points of connection,he or she can find them wherever the soul is present. The tales teach us techniques of connecting and provide a pattern for entering into dialogue with life. This dialogue can take place in many ways, and although everything has to be addressed in its own language, there is at least one common ground between addressees and addressers. This common ground is the soul. Hungarian folk tales strive to connect their listeners to the completeness of life, to a functioning and cognisable cosmic law.”
With the understanding that everything has a spirit, the talto would travel to other worlds to establish peace for those seeking it. This would be done for the wellbeing of the individual, as well as that of the community. Since grade school, I have felt a natural comfortability listening to others’ confusion, fears, and sadness. Since even younger, I have been in communication with plants and animals in ways I knew would not be understood by the ordinary world. I believe that my life (along with formal education) has trained me to step into this position with confidence and trust in my connection and ability to channel the healing nature of our earth. In this way, I do feel connected to the beliefs of my ancestors. I don’t even have to feel connected, I am connected. (As I wrote these words, I was overcome with a sense of that connection as I let my gaze fall over the changing maple leaves, the willow swaying in the distance, and the blue sky above. The earth is our connection, the earth is our relation. I felt accepted and loved, strong and true, as an old grandmother with a beautiful abundance of body held her hands over my head, telling me I am on a good path. )
If this connection is real, then that means I am also connected to the 15+ generations who bought into colonial beliefs, whiteness, and the ill-information that dominance over others can provide access to resources and safety.
Although my ancestors’ practices bear many similarities to the core shamanism I have learned, there are other things to name here. Upon entering the program at FSS, I hadn’t asked these hard questions and was purely driven by the acknowledgement that I had deep work to do so that I may hold a space in which others could heal. I was a white person purchasing a healing tradition, while largely formulated by my teacher herself, still had elements of ancient indigenous wisdom. I did this without considering where the shamanic wisdom came from, or asking myself if that was okay. White people do this all the time. They take the bits and pieces from other traditions they like, without seeing the whole picture, knowing the violent histories, struggles peoples have had to endure, or how the wisdom originated.
I feel a deep sadness for separated from my ancestors’ earth-based spiritual tradition. Whether it was lost by way of oppressive forces or choice, the line has been broken. Many of us do not feel altogether natural in this world of consumerism and forced labor (we must work to live) and we long for a connection to something greater than ourselves. Our vision and intent is obscured by what we imagine those outside of us will think, because that is how society trains us to be. It can prevent us from stepping into the ways we wish to help others and ourselves. I learned this from an apple tree.
As I sat beneath the apple tree next to my home and offered up my inquiry about practicing shamanism as a white person, I noticed the low, ancient branches. Thick spindly arms covered with lichen and moss were holding an abundance of blushing, full apples. I rested here for a moment, feeling into that abundance, noticing how low they were hanging, easily accessible to human and bear alike. Then I remembered back to last fall. There were not this many apples. My landmate had cut most of the thin, new branches growing out of the top of the tree. These little, new growth branches are called suckers, because they zap the water and nutrients out of the existing, elder branches. My gaze rose up to the remaining suckers at the crown of the tree. No apples. In that moment, the suckers became representative of my egoic concern for how I would be judged by my peers, and those I wish to serve. Maybe they would think I didn’t know, or realize that practicing shamanism is appropriation and therefore harmful. I think this is a place where people often get stuck: worrying about how others view us and whether or not we are ‘doing it right.’ I trust the wisdom of the apple tree that we have to let go of this fear so that we may focus on the real work that needs done.
As I looked back down to the abundance of apples, I recognized these branches as the deeper truth, and then the questions came flooding in: What is this disconnection I have from the land I live on, and the people that were here first? What does it mean for me to practice an old tradition as a white person, who has been benefiting from the direct harm of BIPOC? These are questions that won’t have immediate answers, but that I will continue to work though.
We can also think about our European colonial settler ancestors as suckers. Really though, they were seeking sustenance, and zapping resources from those who have existed for thousands of years. Depleting abundance with every new shoot, only concerned for their independent survival, and not that of the whole. This lesson from my dear apple tree friend has shown me that I take from the earth without giving, and that it is in my nurture to do so. I believe my true nature is one oriented toward goodness, but that I am carrying the ignorance and violence of white supremacist tradition in my blood.
Whites have access to resources and thoughtlessly take. I do not believe it is our fault. I believe we inherited a number of things from our ancestors that have been passed down through the generations. Things like: beliefs about scarcity, and that we must hurt others to get our needs met, that we must do, do, do! talk, talk, talk! produce! produce! produce! We feel the urgency for movement over stillness, for speaking over listening. These characteristics of white supremacy dominate so much of our culture that it is hard to see the fish from the water. Someone even created a list of them, written and adapted by Tema Okun. I highly suggest going through each of these with thoughtfulness, self compassion and a pen and paper nearby to write out whatever comes up.
I’ve found this article by Robert P. Baird helpful in understanding the origin of whiteness, and all of the steps that made it possible to become the oppressive monolith it is today. It is important for Euro-Americans to understand how and why our ancestors made the decision to align with whiteness at the expense of Africans and indigenous peoples, thereby giving up a foundational piece of humanity and much of their cultural heritage along with it. Baird writes,
Still, with only slightly exaggerated precision, we can say that one of the most crucial developments in “the discovery of personal whiteness” took place during the second half of the 17th century, on the peripheries of the still-young British empire. What’s more, historians such as Oscar and Mary Handlin, Edmund Morgan and Edward Rugemer have largely confirmed Du Bois’s suspicion that while xenophobia appears to be fairly universal among human groupings, the invention of a white racial identity was motivated from the start by a need to justify the enslavement of Africans. In the words of Eric Williams, a historian who later “became the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery”.
This began a centuries-long agreement to shut off any feeling toward the violence black and brown people endure. The willingness to deny these truths allowed white generations forward to be born into lives ignorant of their privilege, and the way they cause harm. I personally had to be knocked over the head to finally understand it. Now I see that my complicity does not come from the actions of my ancestors (for we cannot change the past), but from inaction and the will to let the ancestral line of whiteness go unchallenged, unquestioned, and unchanged. Inaction is the refusal to engage. I know now that I must engage with each way white supremacy shows up in my life and the lives of others (i.e. every part of my life). My relationship to spirituality is one of those ways. I can strengthen my connection to my well ancestors, and read up on and work toward healing my relationships to the ones who have caused harm. I can do this while continuing to ask questions about how my white supremacist indoctrination affects BIPOC, and work to change those things. Though challenging, I am only ever grateful for the opportunity to work through it, learning to not turn away from the discomfort, and trust that fucking up is part of it. I certainly have, and will continue to harm others, and I definitely don’t have all the answers.
This collection of thoughts is not meant to serve as a simple justification so that I may practice shamanic healing without recourse, but as a reminder for myself, and an invitation to all those I serve, to look into our separation from the earth, spirituality, and to take responsibility for the harms that white supremacy inflicts. We can move into deeper trust and healing for ourselves, and for the whole. My desire to practice healing work has kept the drive to seek the painful truths alive in me, and it continues to do so. Because, as one of my favorite writers, Virginia Woolf suggests, “we cannot find peace by avoiding life.” Part of life is suffering, and we must face it, equipped, and in love with the eternal practice.
*I would never call myself a shaman. Much like an ally, a shaman is named only by the community they serve. I hope to someday earn that honor, though I ask that I still not be called a shaman. It is my wish that other names, other words will arise, if the need for words arises at all.*