Paul Francis, 2017
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Whilst the word ‘shaman’ dates back several thousand years and referred, originally to a practitioner in the magico-religious rituals of tribal peoples in far northern Asia, it came to be used in a more general sense in the twentieth century. When anthropologists and others studying world religions began to recognize the many similarities between those ancient shamanic rituals and the beliefs and practices of indigenous people in many other cultures around the world, from Australasia through Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, they adopted the word ‘shamanism’ as a generic descriptor for this type of spiritual practice, i.e. the practice of entering trance states in order to mediate between the human and spirit worlds and to treat ailments/illness/social problems by mending the soul.
More recently, particularly since the 1970s, the heyday of the so-called ‘New Age’, there has been a growing interest in shamanism, its potential application to modern life and its potential for healing. Inevitably, this has led to a backlash, with accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ and even anger among some indigenous groups, particularly Native Americans, towards the people they refer to scathingly as ‘plastic shamans.’ (And indeed there are some of those around, so caveat emptor!)
Paul Francis, in this useful new book, skilfully avoids any such accusations. He makes no references to specific cultural practices, carefully disassociating what he calls ‘Therapeutic Shamanism’ from indigenous shamanism. Neither, out of respect for its original meaning, does he claim the title of ‘shaman’, describing himself, rather, as a ‘shamanic practitioner.’ Having studied the subject extensively, he focuses—as does that other, well-known writer on shamanism, Michael Harner—on the universality of shamanic understandings and practices and distils their essence into a viable, personal spiritual practice for the 21st century—or, as the book’s blurb puts it, ‘an apprenticeship for modern times.’
As Francis explains, shamanism is based on the animistic belief that not just humans but all life forms and non-living features of the planet such as rivers and rocks are imbued with soul and some form of consciousness (which may be so different from our own that we do not recognize it as such, acculturated as we are by the materialistic, Cartesian cultural trends of the last two centuries).
He describes this book as a practical, step-by-step instruction manual which aims to give its reader not only a clear understanding of the core principles of Therapeutic Shamanism but rather, a set of exercises which, if followed and practised, can provide us with a new and profoundly useful way of understanding and healing ourselves and the world around us. Yet, as he points out, many of us, when we start to perform some of these practices, experience a deep feeling of familiarity. Since shamanism is as ancient as humanity itself, maybe it is hard-wired into our DNA and simply needs to be remembered.
The author’s knowledge of his subject is impressive. But he shares it at what I found was a perfect pace for learning. By taking us, first, through a thorough and comprehensive explanation of theory (including the origins of shamanism) and then some careful preparation, he makes sure that we can embark with confidence on the practical, experiential section of the book which follows.
Finally, he takes us into a widening discussion of how Therapeutic Shamanism can be applied in the outer world, how it can complement psychotherapy (he is also a psychotherapist) and how it can help us to bring so many aspects of not only our personal lives but our society itself back into better balance.
I found this book fascinating, easy to read and instructive and the exercises very useful to learn and practise and I can happily recommend it to others as a very skilful and comprehensive explication of what is undoubtedly the world’s most ancient form of spiritual practice and yet perhaps one of the most applicable to our modern times and dilemmas. In our skewed, anthropocentric Western world, it is a wonderfully refreshing breath of ecocentric air. And since this is the first of a planned series by this author, I am already looking forward eagerly to reading the next volume.