What is a shaman?

Martin Prechtel

In a 2001 interview for the The Sun Magazine, Mayan elder Martín Prechtel sets out a world view that is similar to that embodied in the West African spiritual practices I have been studying with Glenn Leisching, an initiated elder of the Dagara tribe. As I read Prechtel’s words, many things click into place.

Shamans are sometimes considered healers or doctors, but really they are people who deal with the tears and holes we create in the net of life, the damage that we all cause in our search for survival. In a sense, all of us — even the most untechnological, spiritual, and benign peoples — are constantly wrecking the world. The question is: how do we respond to that destruction?

If we respond as we do in modern culture, by ignoring the spiritual debt that we create just by living, then that debt will come back to bite us, hard. But there are other ways to respond. One is to try to repay that debt by giving gifts of beauty and praise to the sacred, to the invisible world that gives us life. Shamans deal with the problems that arise when we forget the relationship that exists between us and the other world that feeds us, or when, for whatever reason, we don’t feed the other world in return.

A few months ago, I would have called this analysis a fanciful story, a myth, a beautiful symbolism. But now I’ve had the experience of working with my great great grandfather’s words, and the deep sense of connection that work has given me. In rituals orchestrated by Glenn, I’ve found a sense of belonging in relating to the ancestors.

Also, I’ve been studying Christian Science, in which it is explicitly stated that reality is purely spiritual and that the physical world is not really physical but is a reflection of God/Mind/Spirit. I don’t think the Christian Scientists agree with the idea that we can communicate with the ancestors, but they have set me up to accept this concept of the other world flowing into our world as a literal fact.

If this world were a tree, then the other world would be the roots — the part of the plant we can’t see, but that puts the sap into the tree’s veins. The other world feeds this tangible world — the world that can feel pain, that can eat and drink, that can fail; the world that goes around in cycles; the world where we die. The other world is what makes this world work. And the way we help the other world continue is by feeding it with our beauty…

The Mayans say that the other world sings us into being. We are its song. We’re made of sound, and as the sound passes through the sieve between this world and the other world, it takes the shape of birds, grass, tables — all these things are made of sound. Human beings, with our own sounds, can feed the other world in return, to fatten those in the other world up, so they can continue to sing.

“The other world sings us into being.”

Our little secular community choir is learning Vivaldi’s “Gloria”, a 72-page outpouring of praise to God in complex four-part harmonies. We labor over the phrases, our opera singer director patiently drawing music from our largely amateur mouths and earnest hearts. Once in a while, we string together a few pages in a row, blending all four parts in a surprising, swollen, skyward sound that leaves us exultant. Is that the kind of sound that sings us into being? Does singing it, even if we don’t believe in God, feed the other world?              …to be continued

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2 Responses to What is a shaman?

  1. MJ says:

    Absolutely! When you sing, especially with other people, singing spiritual songs, the vibrational harmony brings you to the present moment completely. This can be very healing.

  2. visnow77 says:

    MJ, you should come join the Phoenicia Community Choir–we’re now learning Handel’s Messiah! As good as the Gloria-

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