The Search for a Modern Day Shaman
By Toby Coates
Shamanism is not a topic often discussed in modern Western society, and rarely will one be called a Shaman. In the occasional event when the term is applied, it is done so loosely, resulting in negative connotations from its misplaced interchangeability with words like ‘sorcerer’ and magician’ (Fox 2001: 315), and such a misunderstood and disrespectful use of the term ‘Shaman’ holds it back from being truly understood or respected.
The purpose of this essay is to examine the existence of a Shaman in modern Western society, by exploring the question of whether a massage therapist fits the framework of a Shaman . In short, this framework consists of healing, ritual, the appropriate use of altered states of consciousness (ASC) and the travel between different realms of reality – which will specifically be referred to in this paper as ‘Shamanistic travel’. In order to effectively approach the discussion at hand, generate a greater understanding of massage therapy and create a focused and streamlined paper, an interview has been conducted with Mandy Coates, a massage therapist. Rather then focusing on the overly vague question of whether any massage therapist can fit the framework of a Shaman, this paper will specifically explore whether Mandy Coates matches this outline.
This will done through four key steps, in which the importance of each element to the Shaman framework will be explained and clarified, followed by an examination of the extent to which Coates’ work as a massage therapist matches that element. Through these steps, it will be shown that Mandy Coates, a massage therapist in modern Western society, can potentially act as a modern day Shaman.
There are four key elements that support the framework of a Shaman to be discussed in this paper, the first of which is healing. Healing is a major feature of Shamanistic practices, and there is nearly always an element of healing involved in some way within the work of a Shaman. (Atkinson 1992: 313-314; Calvert 2002: 13; Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 2; Jilek 2005: 9; Johnson et. al 2008: 62; Mayes 2005: 330; Nakanishi 2006: 235; Townsend 1997: 432,450; USA Today 2005: 12).
What is vital to understand is that Shamanistic healing goes far beyond conventional healing in Western society, which is focused on the physical symptoms and cures. Shamanistic healing involves a much deeper, complete healing, stepping between the emotional and physical, conscious and subconscious, individual and communal, in order to generate an absolute state of both physical and psychological well-being. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 23; Jilek 2005: 13; Noll 1983: 444; Winkelman 1997: 393,395, 415)
So, the question to answer here is whether or not Mandy’s work as a massage therapist involves this absolute form of healing. When asked whether her massage involved healing beyond the physical realm, M. Coates (2010, Personal Communication, May 10) responded with a loud ‘definitely’, before going on to explain how her massage – specifically kahuna massage – achieves just this depth of healing. She explains how massage works on areas of conscious and subconscious emotional stress and deep memories in order to achieve this absolute healing.
Now that the importance of healing to Shamanism has been clarified, and the clear extent to which massage therapy matches this element has become obvious, the next aspect of the Shaman framework can be explored. This next element to be explored is the importance of ritual within Shamanistic practices. Ritual plays an undeniably large aspect of the Shamans life (Farmer 2003; Jilek 2005: 9). Much of their experience involves tradition, repetition and ceremony, all of which feature ritual. There are various crucial functions of ritual to Shamanism. Through appropriate use of ritual, a Shaman is able to create the necessary environment in which the inhibitions of the mind are allowed to open, and design a mood that can comfort those involved in what is a uniquely different experience then what they may be used to. What’s more, the use of ritual provides a spiritual consistency, aids in teaching and understanding, and can provide a far more communal and unifying experience than may have occurred otherwise. (Calvert 2002: 13-14; Farmer 2003; Hume 1997: 112,113,136). Calvert (2002: 14) and Vega (2006: 6) also notes that ritual plays a significant feature in Shamanistic healing, and Calvert goes on to point out the frequent use of massage in Shamanistic rituals of healing.
M. Coates (2010, Personal Communication, May 10) noted how she felt ritual played an integral part in her massage. Firstly, her rituals before and after each massage helped define her work, while the massage itself consisted of a learned ritual – particularly the use of music, and of ‘dance’ around the client – vital to generating the desired atmosphere and result. Secondly, Coates mentions the individual rituals that each client may develop. These can be important for allowing the client to effectively remove themselves from their ‘ordinary’ life, and prepare for the ‘unconventional’ experience to come. Coates goes on to explain how essential her ritual is to the massage, in order to create the necessary environment and provide a consistent process that can successfully encompass complete healing.
Now that the use of ritual is understood, and it has been shown that a massage therapist can appropriately involve this vital element, a Shamans use of ASC will be explored. The appropriate use of ASC is a fundamental basis of Shamanic practices, as the shift of focus onto the senses is extremely important for their ability to gain greater knowledge of the elements and energies around – and within – them, and to effectively participate in the form of absolute Shamanistic healing mentioned earlier (Hume 2007: 4-5; Jilek 2005: 10-11; Johnson et. al 2008: 64; Peters and Price-Williams 1980: 398; Townsend 1997: 431,438; Winkelman 1997: 402).
ASC can be used to encourage union between all levels of consciousness and promote self-awareness and well-being. When used correctly, it can also generate greater awareness of ones own reality and understanding of the nature of the universe and life itself; knowledge that is inaccessible in the ordinary state of consciousness. In short, ASC provides a means through which greater realms of knowledge come within our grasp. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 3,7,17; Noll 1983: 444; Vega 2006: 2; Willis 1994: 16,18; Winkelman 1997: 393,395,409)
In the interview with M. Coates (2010, Personal Communication, May 10), it can be seen just how prevalent ASC is in her massage . She points out how she can find an ASC within herself. During her ritual – of performing her dance, hearing her music and opening up to the energies within the room – she is able to find her own altered state, one of peace and understanding. On top of this, she notes the clients potential to reach an altered state, assisting in absolute healing. The client can find themselves in a state of deeper thought where solutions to inner problems may present themselves, either knowingly or not. From these observations, it is clear that whether ASC occurs in the client, Coates herself, or even both at the same time, it is not only a common feature of her massage, but also a significant tool by which absolute healing can occur.
Healing, ritual and the use of ASC have not only been examined as essential elements of Shamanistic practices, but have also been shown to be dominant features of relevant massage practices by Mandy Coates. The final chapter of the Shaman framework to be explored here is Shamanistic travel .
The first thing that must be done is to explain what is meant by this type of ‘travel’. In short, there are different levels of reality and existence beyond that which is ordinarily perceived (Hume 1997: 113, 2007: 1,5; Jilek 2005: 9; Mayes 2005: 330,345; Townsend 1997: 437; USA Today 2005: 12; Vitebsky 2003: 279). This is tied in with the use of ASC, in that these different realms can be reached through appropriate ASC. Conventional reality consists of a closed perception of existence, hindered by personal and societal inhibitions and the pressure of an overwhelming stream of unanswered issues and irrational beliefs. Shamanistic travel involves the ability to effectively ‘break away’ from this reality, into an opened state of mind; a different realm of existence. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 5-7; Jilek 2005: 9; Peters and Price-Williams 1980: 405-406; Townsend 1997: 437; Winkelman 1997: 411-412)
The purpose of such travel is that by using this ability, the Shaman is able to open their minds not only to their individual existence, but also to the nature and life around them and access an otherwise invisible reality. Through this, they can create a greater connection with, and understanding of, other beings, leading to an enhanced ability to seek out answers to that beings issues, and assist in greater levels of healing. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 3-7,23; Willis 1994: 16)
Healing and ritual, and to some extent, the use of ASC, are all intuitively used within massage. However, the question of whether the massage therapist has the ability to successfully use Shamanistic travel provides a more challenging requirement. M. Coates’ description of her ASC helps explain how she is able to match this kind of travel (2010, Personal Communication, May 10). She notes her belief in different planes of life, and the separation from the day-to-day plane that she makes during massage. As she travels to another realm – with the help of her rituals and ASC – where she can relax her own mind, feel the ‘groove’ and connect on a new level with her patient, she generates greater potentials of healing and understanding.
This essay has explored Shamanism in modern Western society. Specifically, it set out to establish whether Mandy Coates, a modern massage therapist, can fit the framework of a Shaman. To approach the discussion, this essay consisted of four key steps. Each step was an explanation of a fundamental element of the Shaman framework – being healing, ritual, ASC and Shamanistic travel – and an examination of Coates’ applicability to that element.
Through these steps, this paper has provided a relevant Shamanistic profile of Mandy Coates, and shown how her work as a massage therapist appropriately matches the framework of a Shaman. As such, this essay has shown that although modern Western society does not recognise any formal workers as ‘Shamans’, this by no means leads to a lack of any Shamans in such a society. Massage therapy, when performed in the relevant and appropriate manner, has the potential to match Shamanistic practices.
Whether or not they are recognised, Shamans exist today, spread throughout society. The saddest thing is not that Western society does not recognise and respect their abilities, but that the Shamans themselves may not see the truth. Western society must seek to understand the truth of Shamanism, and the Shamans themselves must open up to their abilities.
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