The word shaman originated from a word in Siberia and eventually came to be applied to all medicine men and women of indigenous cultures who's practice includes the flight of the soul. Anthropologist studying indigenous cultures throughout the world began to find that their were similarities from culture to culture in the way the medicine men and women worked with healing. While there were differences due to culture, once the cultural reference is removed a core system of practices can be seen, called core-Shamanism - a phrase coined by Michael Harner.
Shamanism is the practice of these core techniques, sometime studied with the cultural reference, sometimes without, the essential nature of the shamanic practice does not change nor as historical evidence will point out has it changed since ancient times. It has adapted to fit the times or the culture, but its essential nature has always been the same.
Shamanism is not a religion, not unless you want to make it into one. It has been and is being practiced by peoples of many religions, from Christianity, to Judaism, to Hinduism. You will find shamanic practitioners of every faith.
So what then is shamanism?
It is a direct experience of spiritual knowledge. Because of the direct nature of the work it tends to facilitate growth in every religious faith. People will share shamanic experiences in groups, but the insight you gain from shamanic practice happens individually.
What do shamans do?
Shamans work with the spirit or the soul. They heal illness at the soul level. They gain knowledge and insight from working with the spirits of nature such as rocks and trees, the land, and they gain knowledge from working with spirits of animals and humans such as their ancestors. For the shaman everything is alive and carries information, you can call this spirit, energy, or consciousness.
In order to communicate with the spirit or consciousness of these things, the shaman will shift his or her own consciousness. Shamans can do this through various means, such as meditation, repetitive sounds such as that of the drum or rattle, or through the help of plants. The shaman will then "see" through a new set of eyes, they will see what is going on with you on a spiritual level. The shaman is also characterized by the soul flight. The shift of consciousness that the shaman makes, which allows the free part of his or her soul to leave the body. The shaman can then go retrieve information for your healing and growth. They can retrieve healing power, or things that you have lost along the way in living your life. During the soul flight the shaman is both in the room, and going on this "journey" so that he or she has an awareness of both at the same time.
The shaman sees illness as a lack of power because it was lost somewhere in your life. In order to heal you the shaman returns your power to you . She or he may perform a power animal retrieval
.A power animal is a protector, similar to a guardian angel, which protects you from harm and helps you with your spiritual growth by lending its power to you. The negative emotions you may feel, or the negative emotions that another can send at you are seen by the shaman to be stuck or stored in various parts of the body. This can be seen with the example of how stress causes ulcers or back pains. The shaman will re-empower you by removing the energy that does not belong within your body. This is called a shamanic extraction, other healing modalities in addition to shamanism practice this in different forms. This energy is not bad, it is just misplaced. Because it does not belong in your body, it is seen as causing illness that then shows itself in a physical way through pain or sickness.
Because in the shamanic system part of the soul is free to leave the body, it is also believed that soul parts of each individual will leave the body in order to protect itself from trauma. This is considered a positive protection mechanism. For instance, if someone were to be in a car accident, part of the soul would leave the body to protect itself from the trauma of the impact. The soul does not always know how to return, however, and if it has not returned for whatever reason is referred to as soul loss That is when the shaman would become involved, in order to assist with returning this missing piece of yourself. The healer would perform a soul retrieval. In indigenous cultures this was performed quite regularly. In these modern times it can be the case that a person has gone a long time feeling like a part of themselves has been missing.
Soul loss would be comparable to the psychological concept of disassociation.
Other activities which shamans have traditionally performed, in addition to healing people, also involved healing the land. By using their ability to communicate with the consciousness of land, bodies of water and other such natural features of their landscape, shamans for centuries have involved with healing the land. Whether it be determining why crops would not grow in a certain location, or reasons for draught; working with growing things, the weather, and the land has been a traditional activity for the shaman. They would also communicate with nature to find plants to heal illness. Many South American shamans are responsible for finding the healing property of certain plants which then formed the basis for certain medicines we use in the western health system today.
In most cultures, and even today it has been the case that a shaman will be particularly gifted working with one or another some shamanic activity. A shaman may be more called to do soul retrieval, extraction, to work with death and dying, or to work with the land to name a few. Some will specialize in one particular activity, some will be gifted in several areas.
The effectiveness of a shaman is generally measured by the results they are able to achieve. It is believed that unless the shaman is able to call power animals and spiritual aid to help her or him, they will not be effective. Indeed they could not be called a shaman. The teaching of detachment, and letting go of one's ego is a central lesson for the shaman. If they cannot let go of pride and self interest, they are not considered to be a good healer, and may not be able to enlist the spiritual aid considered necessary for effective healing. There is a concept that the spirits must take pity on the healer and the one being healed. If the shaman cannot evoke compassion from those that would aid them, but instead offends with his or her pride no assistance will come to her.
Most of the techniques of a shaman are particular to the individual or culture. Whether a rattle or a drum is used is not considered an essential difference for effectiveness. The shaman must do what ever he or she must do to call forth the energy for healing. Whatever the shaman does to shift her or his consciousness, must only achieve the results of shifting consciousness. The trappings of what the shaman does is comparable to how a star athlete prepares for a game, whether they do calisthenics to prepare, or simply rub their lucky sock, these preparations are just the trappings around the work itself. Once again it is the results that measure the skill level.
Therefore there can be a wide variety of tools and techniques used by shamans, although certain tools/techniques appear frequently. Percussion instruments, plants, water, stones, fires, and singing often accompany shamanic work - but what is specifically used will vary with the shaman, who must achieve the shift of consciousness, receive information being communicated, and be able to direct the healing by whatever means are most effective for him or her. The same applies to whether the shaman uses hawk medicine or bear medicine, although all of these things may change the texture or feel of the shamanic work, one is not better then another.
There are certain techniques or perhaps skills that are considered essentially different in shamanic work. Shapeshifting, merging, journeying, seeing are some of the skills a shaman may or may not posses.