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In neo-shamanism, it has been bandied out - mistakenly - that a shamanist must experience illness, sickness or even death in order to be a shamanist or shaman. This has been bred out of the fact that in some (but not all) Indigenous cultures, a shaman could occasionally be hall-marked by the shaman's sickness, which could be mental or physical in origin; or the shaman's death. The idea being that should a shaman walk so close to the lands of the dead (or indeed, within them), s/he would be better qualified to heal those who were sick or dying or dead.

It's a sound theory, it makes sense, it's certainly true that experiencing chronic illness for most of your life gives you the potential to have a better understanding of others who are experiencing the same thing. The thing is, it's not universal. One does not need to be sick, or dying, or to have died, or whatever, in order to be a shamanist.

It's ironic that I make this argument (or perhaps disclaimer), because in many ways I am the epitome of the 'wounded shamanist.' The person who has died, experienced major surgeries, mental illnesses, chronic illnesses both diagnosed and undiagnosed (in fact, I'm still waiting on a camera endoscopy for the latter).

I've been through more than the average Westerner.

Did my illnesses lead me to shamanism? It's hard to say. Certainly I looked for spiritual succour in order to survive. I learnt very early on of the monstrous nature of humanity that it could unleash itself upon its own species in the matter of childhood rape. And instinctively I found my peace and harmony within nature. Even as a very young child, I would spend time with animals and plants to escape what I knew of the people around me.

But that could have led me anywhere. It is possible to find spiritual succour in any religion. It is possible to love nature even in religions that do not obviously tout love of nature.

It is, however, certainly true that shamanism offered me many practical and useful tools to address my illnesses with peace, acceptance, and understanding. Breath-work, soul retrieval, soul extraction, journeying, listening to teachers and those who are healing themselves, helping others to heal, aligning myself with helpful spirits and so on. That through my practices of shamanism, and my embracing of what I have been taught by the spirits around me, I have learnt to love myself more, and not less, because of these illnesses.

And it is also true that because of them, I think I am able to offer certain insights that others who have not been through them, cannot. I can never undo the crimes that were inflicted upon me, but I can learn from them, take responsibility for my healing, and share what I have learned with others. While I seek health and wellness, I also see how my wounds - both those visible and those beneath the surface - have become a tool in my shamanism to work great healings on behalf of myself, and others.

These ramblings today are brought to you by my illnesses, for alongside my chronic illnesses, my mental disorders, the fact that I need a tooth removed, I also seem to be struck down with food poisoning. And it got me thinking that in the past I used to vilify myself when I was sick. I hated that I couldn't make offerings to the spirits, drum or even journey properly. I hated how out of touch I felt. I even thought, years ago, that it made me a 'bad shamanist' to be sick.

And nowadays it's the opposite. I recognise illness for what it is - a transient state that has the potential to teach me great things on the path to wellness - and accept that illness, when approached from certain mindsets, can provide their own spiritual truths and knowledges. So now I rest easily without self-vilification, because it is through taking care of myself, taking care of my body, and being gentle with myself in ways that other people in my life were not; that I am more spiritual, than if I were to force myself to drum or make offerings.

And it is through my illnesses that I have come to understand the nature of wellness, why it is desirable to achieve, and why we walk the paths to it that we do.
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May 2010

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