Crash Course in Urban Shamanism


This article first appeared on Beyond Meds

Shamans are the magician spirit healers in tribal, non-technological societies around the world. Anthropologists use the word “shamanism,” from the Tungus people of Siberia, to mean the commonalities between different traditions. Shamans find their calling through a life-threatening initiatory illness or crisis, go into visioning and trance to connect to other realities, shapeshift out of their regular identity to identify with animals, spirits, and even illnesses, and return to the ordinary world to share skills of healing and creativity. Living at the edge of society and defying conventional norms, conduct, and even gender, shamans are respected as a powerful community link to the divine.

Traditional shamanism means being part of a living tribal society, apprenticing in it and learning its ways. To take this approach, you need to be accepted by teachers who are part of that culture. If you’re an outsider, don’t be racist: never use a culture’s spirituality without guidance and accountability, and always support cultural survival and land struggles against colonialism and corporate expansion. Traditional peoples need real respect and practical activism, not more plastic, new age medicine men.

Urban shamanism is a broader approach, rediscovering the roots of tribal mind for modern people and putting ancient patterns to use in new forms. Urban shamans reinvent spirit healing for ourselves. All of us have ancestral links to shamanic cultures if we go back far enough, because all societies have origins in tribalism. There are no rules and no end to learning and creativity, as we reawaken our indigenous minds and recreate spirit healing in new ways.

Here are some signposts to urban shamanism: 

Join with wilderness. Everything you need to know is found in the wildness of nature. Get out of the corporate monoculture of our cities. Wander forests, deserts, beaches, and mountains every chance you get. Go off trails, climb trees, sit silently on the earth, sleep under the stars, find music in rushing water, watch animals, thrash in the ocean, follow footprints, listen to birds, stare at clouds, study plants. Seek out pockets of wildness in the hidden edges of cities. Learn the natural history and ecology of your home.

Tracking and awareness. Listen to and question everything in your outer and inner landscape, grounding yourself firmly in the sight, sound, smell, and touch of your present surroundings as if you were tracking animals in the wild. Slow down, then slow down even more, until the virtual world fades and the real world comes into view. Cultivate your skills with meditation and sensory awareness practices. Remember to observe the observer: our inner emotions and sensations are an important territory to explore, and offer vital clues not just to your mind, but also to the world around you. Stillness and sensitivity will guide your attention to what you need to follow. Always come back to the here and now, it’s the most magical place of all.

Experimental attitude. Go on your direct experience of what works. Don’t take anything you were told or read on faith, use trial and error and healthy skepticism. If you wonder if you are just making things up in your imagination, find out – treat it as if it were real and study the results, like a scientist doing an experiment. You may discover that reality isn’t passive, but collaborative, creative, and participatory.

Find pathways to visionary states. Food, media, driving cars, work, computers, and drugs all hypnotize us into ordinary reality. Take back control of your consciousness and start accessing visionary states on your own terms. Check out new tools: follow your intuition to the ideas, methods, and practices you are drawn to. Dancing, drumming, singing, writing, puppetry, music, sex, silence, ritual – all are possible ways to pass from this reality to the next and back. Open your intuitive side, welcome the unknown, focus in on body sensations and emotions, and learn about altered states and imagination. Be open to unexpected interests and odd sources of power, especially what comes into your life seemingly on its own, or fascinated you in childhood. Try out new identities but be ready to drop them when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Your body is the only instrument you truly need.

Listen to your dreams. Don’t just interpret intellectually, actualize your dreams by keeping a journal, drawing images, dialoging with characters, acting out different parts, and looking for clues in waking life. What is the dreamer telling you? Notice uncanny coincidences, track dream-like synchronicities, and explore underground pathways between unrelated events. The more you pay attention to dreams the more dreams you’ll have, and you’ll discover that waking life is itself a dream.

Hunt lost energy. Addictions, spacing out, numbing your body, dull friends, toxic food, corporate media, bad sex- there is a long struggle ahead of you to reclaim all the energy you waste and put it towards awareness and healing. As you clear your own stagnant energy, follow your inspiration and respond to the alive energy of moments, ideas, plants, places and people. Walk new pathways through your city, open up to unexpected music, poetry and art, follow hunches and look for signs. Treat the things you are ashamed of as invitations to find hidden sources of strength. Break the habit of who you are. Surprise yourself.

Explore your calling. Study your crisis and collapsed self. Listen to the voices, look at the visions, and feel the crazy energies of your madness, with a fresh eye towards what wisdom or learning might be behind it all. Imagine that there is something essential for you to discover in the painful parts you might wish would go away. Notice what remains unfinished and unresolved, and sense how your energy is drained when you don’t listen to the missing parts of yourself. Do this when you are strong, grounded, and have solid support from your community.

Learn from your ancestors. Find out as much as you can about your family and roots. Be on the lookout for eccentric, artistic, mad, activist, indigenous, and nonconformist relatives who may also be on a shamanic path. Pay attention to the struggles for survival that your ancestors went through, and any unmet hopes and dreams that are still felt by the living.

Beware ego tripping. Your true needs are in a mysterious flux; learn techniques to put the goal-directed self in its proper place. The purpose of shamanism is to heal and support the community – not acquire personal power. Don’t pray or wish for specific things like a new apartment or marriage, only general things like a home or love. Let the details be a constant surprise as you focus on the magic and beauty of the larger pattern.

And above all: Watch out for getting overwhelmed. Come back to strong grounding practices, clear awareness, and a healthy life first before exploring the unknown. Pace yourself. Be clear about your purpose as a healer, and don’t let any power or uncanny phenomena you encounter distract you from your integrity and ethics. Forge firm bonds of trust and honesty with beloved friends. Get your feet on the earth before you take off for the heavens.

Also of note from Beyond Meds:  Links to Articles That Look at the Shamanic-like Nature of Consciousness



  1. One thing to be careful of is that all the spiritual traditions have methods for safety when engaging with the spirit world. There is quite a lot of risk in combining lots of traditions, or picking and choosing various parts of traditions, or using a tradition in which you are not well trained or not under the protection of a teacher.

    In my case, a pagan or nature spirit type person did this improvised oak tree sage burning ceremony with me last year. It made my spiritual emergency go from a little bad to overwhelming. I had accidentally communicate the wrong message in the spirit world, that I wanted to work in the spirit world, and I had not teacher and not enough a spiritual community. The wrong approach carries quite a lot of danger.

    I don’t know what is the right or wrong approach, but I’m just saying don’t go in thinking that there’s all benefit with no chance for harm.

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    • I agree, there is potential for harm when one feels “moved by the Holy Spirit,” or follows their call to go on their spiritual journey or awakening.

      Thanks for this post, Will. And I did largely what you recommend, out of instinct, and have a beautiful story of a loving and just God, who will hopefully ultimately bring about justice on this planet some day. But my spiritual journey only emerged after I was attacked by a misogynistic pastor who joined my lifelong religion, and his psychiatric practitioner friends, who wanted to cover up the sexual abuse of my son, and my ex-pastor’s denial of my daughter a baptism. A pastoral sin marked indelibly throughout eternity at the exact moment our current, supposedly never ending, “jihad” inspired war began on 9.11.2001.

      But personally, I now believe I was right to be completely disgusted by all that happened on 9.11.2001 including the World Trade Center bombings (despite psychiatric practitioners claiming disgust at 9.11 proved meds were mandatory – who’s crazy?) since many architects, engineers, and demolitions experts now claim the World Trade Center destruction was possibly a false flag operation, orchestrated by my own country, given the way the buildings fell.

      I used to believe in the integrity of my country (the US), my religion, and the medical community. But now it appears my democracy was taken over by an evil corporatocracy. And I know, from many years of research, that what scientists (especially psychiatry) claim as truth is no more true than what hypocritical paternalistic religions claim is true. And the Western “scientists” and religions believe it is their right to destroy the spiritual or potential shaman within – so they may maintain control of their failing patriarchal, pyramid scheme systems.

      But neither the Western scientific or religious communities are right. A fascist corporatocracy, controlled only by the interests of Wall Street psychopaths, is not right either. God did have reason to be angry with American religions and corporations on 9.11.2001, after all.

      I’m still on my spiritual journey, so don’t have all the answers, but have noticed the bible predicted all the wrongs that are occurring in our world today. As one who has been testing out Jesus’ theology, I must confess, I was wrong to believe Jesus should save all. I now understand why Jesus claimed there would be a need to judge all, and His right to judge people based upon how they treated others.

      I personally pray for the day when a just and good God will once again rule our society. Western corporate and paternalistic mainstream religious greed and violence are destroying our society.

      I don’t believe we should have a caste system, and would like to live in a society that actually believes “all people are created equal.” But, if we must live in a caste system, India’s caste system structure makes much more sense than the Western monied interests’ current caste system – neither the corporate heads nor the scientists should be at the top of the caste system, instead the genuinely spiritual and creative leaders should be revered and respected once again.

      But today’s psychiatric industries’ goal is apparently to defame, tranquilize, and murder all the spiritual and creative people, despite this not being in society’s best interest. Any governments or organizations that support and condone psychiatric stigmatizations, forced “treatments,” and poisonings, historically and now, are controlled by unjust and corrupt people. “Follow the artists,” and wisdom seekers, instead.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this Will. So many indigenous cultures embrace a spiritual way of perceiving “madness” and healing that often involves prescribed rituals, Healers/shamans, herbalism and “other world communication.” Often someone becomes a shaman/healer after experiencing an internal crisis/breakdown/spiritual emergence.

    It is deeply challenging to work within this “shamanic” context without either appropriating other cultures or making up our own rules. This is why many who are interested in this work are either dismissed as colonialists or New Age dilettantes. That is sad because this type of work is truly powerful and potent with meaning and transformative power.

    When I experienced some of my deepest psychosis/confusion/emergence, a healer/shaman was able to profoundly assist me in my walk back to a healthier place. Instead of pharmaceutical medicine, she led me to wilderness medicine, tree and plant medicine, spirit medicine. In time that helped me find a good road.

    Indigenous and shamanic healing will never be tested using double blind studies. But it has been used worldwide for helping people through profound “psychotic” and “mentally ill” states. We need to take a stronger look at what these indigenous cultures have to offer.

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    • Jonathan: I remember Robert Whitaker suggesting something spiritual and a little closer to home. He said tha the Quakers used to offer to take people on retreats who were. I have not yet read his latest book. Are his scientific explanations understandable to a lay audience?

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      • Hey yes Chris…

        I think you may be referring to “moral treatment”, the idea of offering sanctuaries for people in emotional distress through a combination of rest, manual work and time in nature/gardens. A wonderful idea. I would also love to see increasing systemic non-medical respites for people in crisis.

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    • Jonathan: I remember Robert Whitaker suggesting something spiritual and a little closer to home. He said tha the Quakers used to offer to take people on retreats who were in distressI have not yet read his latest book. Are his scientific explanations understandable to a lay audience?

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  3. While living in a large urban center in Latin America, my family had a real crash course in “urban shamanism.” For many reasons, a tribal group stopped sending their young men into the Amazon for the vision quest and starting sending them to the city. They would live on the streets in a highly altered state of consciousness until the government would round them up and send them back by bus. My son had several encounters with the young men and then witnessed the murder of one of them by a police officer. I have often wondered about what cultural shift they may have been attempting. How did they interpret the murder of one (and perhaps many more) of their own? One thing I think I took away from their quest was that it was deeply embedded in community. Perhaps in the jungle they were more alone, but in the city, they lived and explored the spiritual territory as a group. Before I go questing, I want to ask, “Where is my tribe?”

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    • In the old days undergoing a shamanic transformation was a dangerous experience, which could result in a person’s death. Maybe the tribal people have realised that the most dangerous place on Earth where you can show your survival skills and find inner strength right now is the city…

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  4. As a side note, after having done extensive research into the anthropology of shamanism and tribal cultures as a whole, I’m convinced that the way most post-modern people think of tribal societies today is pure new-age fantasy. Horrific aspects of tribal life, such as cannibalism (which still exists today), accusations of witchcraft, and infanticide are never discussed. We prefer to see tribal live as one big hippie love-fest. Nothing could be further from the truth. With that said, the shaman plays an important mythic role for post-modern people, and, as I described in the video, can help show people how to deal with their disorder in a radically refreshing way.

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    • I do agree that there is a lot of glorification of shamanism without understanding the complex narratives that go on in many cultures. I lived in Ecuador for a while and worked with Ayahuasceros- Quichua Indians who used the hallucinogen ayahuasca for healing/ritual work. In my work with them I took part in some of their ceremonies and learned some of the complex cosmology.

      A lot of their medicine was based on a syncretic belief system that incorporates folk herbalism, Catholicism and native jungle animism.

      In the healing ceremonies I took part in the ayahuascero would transform into forest creatures while singing “plant songs” and blowing “healing” smoke on participants. The ayahuascero seemed to be able to tap telepathic and psychic information about participants that could appear uncanny.

      They also believed that a lot of illness was caused by evil ayahuasceros sending invisible psychic “darts” at people. So yes, there are complex and sometimes dark underbellies to tribal societies that we in the West tend to overlook. We also tend to appropriate and simplify to a great extent. At the same time, this should not negate the importance of exploring non-linear, “transcendental” ways of healing. Will’s article points to that.

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      • Hi Jonathan!
        I think Will’s article is actually quite an important contribution to the Mad in America dialogue, which I think needs more input regarding spirituality, shamanism and alternative healing practices. I consider my own work with people with bipolar disorder to be inspired much more by shamanic practice than mainstream psychology.

        I spent some time in Peru myself, and actually met my wife there! I agree with your perception of the ‘psychic’ information the shamans down there pick up – they are very good at ‘reading people’. To put it bluntly, the Inca shaman I met, know stuff that I don’t! Their energy work was very impressive.

        I wanted to share a great example of what I was talking about regarding the dark side of shamanism which gets overlooked. You mentioned the belief that, in Ecuador, illnesses are thought to be caused by the darts of evil sorcerers. I did not know about this when I visited Peru. I found out about it in an incredible book by Andrei A. Znamenski called “The Beauty of the Primitive: Shamansim and the Western Imagination.” There, Znamenski tells us that in the original ritual of removing evil darts from the body of someone who is afflicted, that the second part of the ritual is for the shaman to then send the dart back in the direction of the evil sorcerer (whoever that may be) in an act of retaliation. However, as the Peruvian/Ecuadorian shaman have learned, the new-age type people who visit them from the United States and elsewhere don’t approve of the ‘revenge’ aspect of their ancient ritual. And, since they don’t want to piss of their best customers, the act of returning the dart in revenge has been quietly phased out of the ritual! Amazing stuff.

        In addition, I´ve come to learn that the idea of illness being caused by evil sorcerers (black magic) is a universal belief, found in all tribes around the world! It is also universal that when the evil sorcerer is identified within the tribe, he/she is killed, as the survival of the entire tribe feels threatened. I got that info from an older book that I´m reading right now called. The Primitive Mentality by Lucien Lévy-Bruhl . Written in the 1920’s long before the PC movement stopped us from referring to tribes as ‘primitive’, the book gives a remarkably thorough account of tribal beliefs and practices around the world. I was expecting the book to be wildly judgmental of tribal practices. Instead I found it to be objective, factual and all-encompassing. It compares and contrasts beliefs and practices from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Polynesia. In my opinion, it neither venerates tribes, nor insults them. Another great book.

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    • I don’t think that is a fair characterisation. For instance many people undergoing the shamanic transformation died (that’s part of why becoming a shaman was just a big thing – you had to prove strong enough to survive) and many rituals were brutal.

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  5. no one is suggesting that a western modern person who has shamanic sensibilities is going to look anything like an ancient one nor should they…and I’m not sure no one talks about things like cannibalism etc…in the circles I travel in no one is pretending the past was all roses…

    …what is clear though, is people who were born and wired with shaman-like consciousness had teachers in those earlier cultures and in ours that is absent. There is no one to help folks with broad consciousness to find their place in the world and work through that stuff. That is what we are trying to create, in large part with multiple alternative visions and hopefully, one day, an infrastructure of care that supports options.

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    • Hi Monica and all,
      ” …what is clear though , is people who were born and wired with shaman-like consciousness had teachers in those earlier cultures and in ours that is absent. There is no one to help folks with broad consciousness to find their place in the world and work through that stuff. That is what we are trying to create, in large part with multiple alternative visions and hopefully, one day, an infrastructure of care that supports options. ”
      The people in the earlier cultures with shaman like consciousness in some ways had fewer obstacles to overcome to find their place in the world as compared to someone like them living today. Just imagine having a shaman like consciousness breaking through you while you at the same time are dealing with the distortion factor of 15 silver- mercury dental fillings (Poison Implants Installed Near The Brain), being abused at home ,then overhung with a permanent evolving pseudo scientific psychiatric diagnosis “treatments and threat of more treatments”forced hospitalizations , tie downs, drugged and electrified. Turned into a person not to be believed by family or anyone who knew I had a diagnosis,not hired for work at any livable wage, made into a virtual pariah and embarrassment.( I guess I fell through the cracks of psychiatry’s anti stigma efforts) Some of the time wondering what is happening to me, why is this happening to me , how could this be happening to me? Yeah , that happened to me
      on and off for decades saved by strategic escapes and fortuitous meetings , a Social Security Disability check ,some family and a few friends.
      Eventually met a wonderful Traditional Naturopath Joseph Liss N.D.that taught me for free. Years later while baking pre- made crust pizza’s in a family members restaurant I earned money and spent it learning Chinese Energetic Medicine ….YuenMethod an advanced form of Energy Healing. (Can see demonstrations at )I was on my way.Eventually the mercury fillings were removed according to Hal Huggins protocols.
      This is what I know and can demonstrate. Just as Bruce Lee combined the best of various martial arts styles to create an improved style.One of my teachers Kam Yuen is a 35th generation Shaolin Master and a modern equivalent of the ancient martial arts and healing masters of the 1500 year old Shaolin Temple in Northern China.He teaches the ancient healing arts of the East to enrich the lives of people of all ages throughout the world.His contribution is in the way he combines teachings from the East with quantum physics , biology and psychology from the West.
      As pertains to the concerns of many here at MIA this is what it means and what I can demonstrate as far as I’ve taken what I have learned.
      I recognize that Yuen Method is the missing link of all healing systems in the world. How can I say this ? Because if a person has some problem they can be, if they so choose be tested beforehand without physical contact as to what type of modality they are considering or not would be best for them to pursue for their own benefit. This is for problems on 6 different levels and or combinations of, spiritual, psychic, mental, emotional. psychological, and physical. Or through yuen method the problem can be solved on the spot almost immediately if acute. or over more time if chronic.
      Over the last 30 years I have found out something very interesting and hopeful. Here in the USA we have been a destination for many healing innovators besides our own native ones, that are steeped in ancient traditions from various parts of the world that have come here to gain a hearing and to demonstrate not only their healing art but their innovations which they cannot do so freely at home to make their contribution and make a living. In addition there has been a great information exchange. Seek and you shall find in the field of health has never been truer especially for those who have acquired some deep education in natural healing.That education can help one avoid false teachings to which all of us have succumbed at one time or another.
      See Alex’s comment’s in Sandy’s blog, anti-psychiatry, below this one. Only a misguided person would fail to pick-up on Alex’s offer if they have need . Energy Healing is where it is at . To fail to investigate is a big mistake. It is the cutting edge of our modern day Shamonic healing and the cutting edge of healing period in the world today.

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  6. oh, and Sean, I know that you too are also presenting alternatives…I wasn’t arguing with you in general…but I wanted to clarify my position on shamanism which has been a very helpful world view in my own process…(along with dozens of others) Consciousness, by it’s very nature, lends itself to multiple perspectives…

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    • Shamanism has been a big help to me too! I spent the better part of 10 years quite involved a shamanic group, and met my wife on a shamanic tour in Brazil. I meditate more now, but I’m still a fan of shamanism. My ‘side note’ was just trying to open the perspective here at Mad in America. I think we need to look at tribal consciousness and shamanism with our eyes wide open, to see the helpful part, and the unhelpful – to embrace the whole thing.

      I made a video on the Dark Side of Tribal Consciousness (#18) in my video series. Boy, did I take a lot of heat for that. Many people accused me of being a racist. My reply was “Which race am I racist against? We all come from tribal ancestors. Do you think white people never lived in tribes?”

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    • According to my family’s medical records, “authority” will also put a person in a mental hospital for belief in the “Holy Spirit” and “God,” too. Especially when “authority” wants to cover up easily recognized, complex, and controversial iatrogenesis, and sexual abuse of children by “authority” figures.

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  7. I hope one day the “mentally ill will realize the system that is keeping them down, perpetuating and reinforcing illness and stigma. What we really need is strength. We need to realize that trauma is the source of our differences. Our dissociation from ourself and our suppressed memories keep us afraid. Society keeps us afraid and ashamed of our trauma, of our anxiety. This fear of being different can escalate symptoms of mental illness. “Mental illness”

    It is designed to oppress us, take away out power, our voice. There is a cure. It is realizing there are suppressed memories. We have hidden these memories to protect ourselves, but once we realize how past traumas have influenced “symptoms” we can become whole.
    My mission is to find the cure to the Illness that does not exist.

    -Tru Harlow

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