According to the Journal of American College Health, a quarter of the American population suffers from mental illness. One in six Americans are on psychiatric drugs reports Scientific American. Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the USA, and treatment begins as early as age 14. In short, mental illness is a huge problem.
People are searching for answers, and they are not finding it in the mental health community. In fact, the problem is growing!
Lots of people are flocking to “shamanism” for the answer. They are reading that mental illness is not really something bad, it’s a sign of shamanic initiation. It’s an awakening to your true self. That’s really uplifting, isn’t it?
I’m a mental health professional who was born into an animist culture. I’d like to shed some light on this because I think this is a case of coming to conclusions with too few pieces of a puzzle. I see people hurt by this thinking. If I can lend some balance to the issue, I’d like to.
We’re Not Viewing “Shamanism” From Its Native Lens
The first problem is that lots of people confuse shamanism with animism. “Shamanism” is the mystical path of Tungus speaking people of Siberia. It’s not a generic word. The mystical traditions of indigenous people varies widely and cannot be reduced to the common elements.
That’s a very western way of thinking that got us cardiology and oncology vs. the eastern way of holistic medicine. When you take a concept out of its environment, you change it. So, it’s not particularly useful or accurate when applied elsewhere. Or perhaps it is useful, but when used in isolation, you could get unintended consequences because of overlooking all the systems that are in play. I think this is one reason why we have so much mental illness today – we see things as separate compartments rather than viewing them as a whole. So, we treat one symptom and create ten more.
We’re Confusing Shamanism With Animism
Lots of “experts” are suggesting that mental illness is a shamanic call. The “sick” person is being summoned to serve others as a healer. They say that becoming a shaman is not only the way to heal themselves, but it’s a way to heal the world.
I am an optimist who puts a positive spin on everything. I think everything is happening for our highest and best selves, and we become stronger by meeting adversity with courage. That said, I think it’s really irresponsible to tell someone who is struggling that they have to serve when they don’t have the foundation or skills to do so.
Shamanism isn’t just about working with spirits. It’s holistic and rooted animist culture. It’s about knowing how to hear the voices in the wind, feel the energies of the plants, and speak to the animals and ancestors. Animist mystics get their power from the Spirit. They go into very dark places that can shatter the psyche. How can someone who doesn’t have any of that foundation serve well?
Perhaps mental illness is not so much about being called to be a shaman. Perhaps it is a call to be more natural. That’s what animism is. It’s living in tune with Nature. It’s providing that foundation to understand what it is to be a shaman. A holistic life is deeper than ideas and rituals. It’s rooted in the past, present, and future; the ancestors, family, and descendants; Earth and Sky. It is a way to regain connection to all our being. Not just as a personality, but as a whole person.
We’re Engaging in Spiritual Bypass
I have helped people who explored the shaman path in one way or another, then crashed. They went searching for someone to help put the pieces back together and get their feet back on the ground. They see that the whole time, they were engaging in spiritual bypass.
It felt good to feel special and to be with people who “got” them. It was exhilarating to have unique experiences. And at the end of the day, their problems were still there. They still had to learn how to pay their own bills, manage their own emotions, relate in a healthy way with other people, and think for themselves.
There’s no get out of jail free card, folks. If you want a shaman to take away all your pain, it’s the same mentality of taking a pill or asking a therapist to “fix” you. That’s not how life works. We all have to do our own work.
I am not trying to be a Debbie Downer. I’m trying to save you some heartache. That said, if that’s your path, enjoy it. Sometimes we have to learn for ourselves. And sometimes you are the outlier who has a completely different outcome. It can happen.
Am I Having a Shamanic Initiation?
So, after saying all that, it does happen that people are called to serve the mystical path through a break down. It could be physical or emotional. It’s as if your old life is leaving and a new one begins.
If you are enduring this and asking that question, know that nobody can really answer that for you. Here are somethings you can do to help you figure it out.
- accept your present state of being. Don’t pathologize or glorify it. Enjoy it. Observe it. Be curious and open minded about it. In other words, stay grounded.
- investigate animism and see if this is something that can give you a foundation to live in the holistic, complementary duality framework where animist mystics originate. This will give your experience context.
- acquire the skills you need to live as a well human. Be self supporting. Manage your emotions. Take care of your mind, body, and spirit. Have healthy relationships. Create a healthy relationship with the material world. Nurture and be nurtured by your family.
- cultivate a healthy relationship with the spirit world. Have boundaries.
- connect with other people who have otherworldly experiences. Give your experiences perspective. Learn to understand them. When they are no longer scary or novel, you may view them very differently.
If you do all these things, I think you will become very clear whether or not you’re having a shamanic initiation or not.