The Life of the Shaman: The Hero’s Journey

The life of the shaman proceeds along the course of the hero’s journey, which was set out by the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, in five major stages. They are:

1) The shaman’s early conventional life;
2) The crisis, or call to adventure and awakening;
3) Discipline and training;
4) Culmination of the quest in enlightenment, death and rebirth; and
5) The final phase of return and contribution to society.

The shamans were the world’s first spiritual explorers. They laid the foundation for what we now know as the spiritual path to enlightenment, the heroic quest for the grail, the journey into death and resurrection–namely, as Joseph Campbell dubbed it, the hero’s journey.

In the words of Roger Walsh, shamans were the first to “systematically explore and cultivate their inner world and to use their insights and images for the benefits of their people.”

They were the first to be dissatisfied with the life of everyday, waking consciousness, the first to relinquish the acceptance of the plain surface reality of things, the first to step blindly into the world beyond.

Spurred on by the call of helper spirits, or by their own inward curiosity and questioning, the shaman set himself on the path of discovery. This path plunged them into an alien world of visions, dreams, and the inner realities of the soul.

Everyone who has since set out on this path has done so tracing along with the footsteps of shamans who came before us.

In brief, the journey goes something like this:

1) The hero’s early conventional life:

Here, the hero is blissfully unaware that culture is an illusion. He accepts the conventional beliefs, morals, and limitations set out by his society.

The task of the hero is to go beyond these limitations. It is to question his own beliefs as well as the moral foundations of his society. As Roger Walsh explains, this “requires facing the inner fears and outer social sanctions that constrain and cripple our capacities” (Walsh).

First things first, however, the hero must realize that there are fears needing facing, and beliefs needing questioning. This is achieved by…

2) The crisis, or call to adventure and awakening:

At some point, the hero’s normal, everyday life is challenged by a crisis, or an encounter with the unknown that calls previous beliefs into question.

This crisis can take many forms. For the shaman, it was often the emergence of a strange illness, a visitation from within a dream, a powerful vision, or a confrontation with death. Whatever form it takes, “this challenge reveals the limits of cultural thinking and living, and urges the hero [the shaman] beyond them” (Walsh).

Once the crisis, or call, comes, the shaman is faced with a choice. Either accept the call and take those first blind steps into an alien unknown, or repress the crisis and try to go back to living a normal life as if none of it happened.

The call, however, never really goes away. That feeling of dissatisfaction and dis-ease lingers on forever, and most shamans who try to refuse the call go mad or die.

Those who accept face an equally difficult, but infinitely more rewarding, path.

3) Discipline and training:

The next step for the shaman is to find and acquire a teacher.

A teacher can be both internal or external. For the shaman, the teacher often took the form of an inner guide or spirit. Just as often, shamans were trained and educated by other shamans in their community.

Whatever form they take, the teacher starts the shaman-to-be on a program of discipline, both physical and mental, to develop the will as well as to disrupt the shaman’s ordinary–that is, comfortable–state of mind. This is in order that his mind may be opened to new possibilities and modes of awareness. Such disciplines can include fasting, sleep deprivation, physical exertion, isolation, or exposure to extremes of hot or cold.

The aim and effect of these disciplines is to change the way the mind perceives reality.

4) Culmination of the quest–death and rebirth:

The quest culminates in illumination, or a life-changing breakthrough.

This may take the form of a vision, a special insight, or–and this is most common with the shamanic experience–an experience of death and rebirth.

Again, whatever form it takes, the end effect is the same: “a realization of one’s deeper nature and a resultant self-transformation” (Walsh).

5) The final phase of return and contribution to society:

Having healed himself, the shaman is now spiritually equipped for the task of healing the world–that being his immediate community.

Whereas the quest itself was a turning away from society and into his deeper, inward self, the quest ends with a return back into society in order to share and give from what was learned and attained on the journey.

This story of the shaman’s development, the hero’s journey, is in essence a description of the human story. The experience of an artist, a teacher, a scientist, a writer–the experience of any human story worth telling–follows this same general pattern. An encounter with a crisis or problem, and then through the work of resolving it, the discovery of something profound that can benefit the whole world.

The hero of the hero’s journey is the one who brings something true and worthwhile into this, our shared human reality, out from the alternate reality of one’s own inner self.

This is the great spiritual work, and it is the essence of the shamanic life.