What is it like to practice as a traditional spiritual healer? (originally posted 2017)
“I really want to apprentice – how can I get this started apprenticing with you?”
A stranger asked me this question recently and it really got me thinking. I don’t advertise or offer apprenticeships and when I asked this person what their experience was with the practices I study they said they didn’t have any experience. They also said they didn’t have an income but wanted to sit in ceremonies for free so they could watch and learn how to become a “shaman.” Normally I would always keep ceremonies private for just participants to respect the patients privacy. I had a hard time understanding how this person could want to make such a huge commitment and how they expected to study and learn so much without having anything to contribute…. I got the impression they even thought that since they didn’t have a job currently they could just learn this real quick and suddenly support themselves and pay their bills being a shaman in just a short while. I quickly realized they had no clue what it was like to learn healing, or practice as a healer, but had many ideas in their head that were very far from reality.
I told him if he really wanted to learn he should first start sitting with a couple different healers and different practices to find what he resonates with and should then spend a couple years on his personal healing before committing to apprenticeship. I also told him he should start studying anatomy, disease and pathology, natural medicines, psychology and maybe learn some musical instruments. He would likely need some resources to support himself during that time and to help him afford all that healing work and training so he might even want to start by getting some savings together or a job to support himself while he heals and learns. After a couple years sitting in traditional ceremonies working on himself maybe he would be ready for apprenticeship.
He did not like that answer.
These days shamanism and indigenous style healing is becoming very popular. Many people disconnected from their spirit or from nature or who have illness not understood by western medicine look to older ways of healing and wisdom that they can benefit from. Many people also feel a desire to help others or want to inspire their community and have romanticized ideas about shamans awakening the masses with their magic. Generally the ideas of what goes on behind the scenes in ceremony are more inspired by movies or click-bait social media articles then reality and a lot of people get really confused about what a shamanic practice or lifestyle might look like.
I remember my first Ayahuasca retreat in Peru I spent a lot of the time feeling very sick and weak and having to puke a whole bunch. But I watched the shamans singing their beautiful medicine songs while under the effects of the same medicine I had drunk – they looked strong and functional and were taking care of a group of people who on the same substance could often not even stand on their own! I romantically imagined the shamans must be so powerful and purified they don’t even feel sick and they are just in pure bliss with the medicine the entire time…. Little did I know they are often just as sick as everyone else is, but they have learned how to handle it and work through their discomfort and sickness so that they can serve and help others.
Some of my teachers would share their personal experiences in ceremony with me, and after years of study when I was able to host my own ceremonies I had many experiences most people don’t consider when they think they want to become a shaman. Ever wanted to go deep into a trance where you are attacked by demonic seeming spirits? Well, happens pretty often for many traditionally trained shamans – you want to clear away the dark energies from a patient you better be prepared for those energies to fight back! No one wants to get evicted from their home and that patient of yours is where they live!
Shamanic healing is not all love and light – most shamans work with a lot of dark energies as those are the energies often troubling people and they need to be worked through for those people to heal. It is not uncommon in the traditions I study for a dark spirit to try and steal the shamans medicine from them or to even make them sick or try to choke them! It can be a real battle. Sometimes after doing a deep cleansing for someone if you picked up some of the energy they were releasing you can spend days or even weeks feeling like your digestion is weak and troubled, your immune system can get attacked by the spirits leaving you with a cold or fever, and all of this of course can have a very strong affect on your emotional state. Many practitioners I know are constantly trying to clear all the energies they pick up from clients in ceremony and there can often be this endless process of getting more and more protection as you learn how to offer deeper and deeper work. As your work goes deeper and uncovers more darkness you inevitably need more protection and power to deal with what you are digging up!
But it pays well doesn’t it? This is one of the biggest misconceptions I see people have… In most cases practitioners I know have invested years and thousands of dollars into their training or traveling for training. Depending on the type of ceremonies they offer they may also need to invest a lot of money into creating a retreat center or place for ceremony. Their work might also include paying for offerings or medicines and other items used in the ceremony or necessary for staying in right relationship with the spirits. And I know some healers will host huge groups and charge high prices, but in most cases practitioners I know sacrifice high paying jobs to become healers for minimum pay. Some work for free, some for donation, and some charge…. But most of them are not making much money even if they charge. At the same time you will encounter clients who want their healing for free while they throw cash into a night of drinking in the city or enjoying unnecessary luxuries (as if those luxuries are more important then their healing!). For some reason most people assume being a shaman is the quickest get rich scheme around – but I can tell you truthfully most shamans are not even close to being rich and most need multiple sources of income to support their work. I know many healers who are busy with clients all the time and after years of work have still not received enough compensation to pay for everything they invested – not even close.
Working as a health care provider of course comes with it’s own responsibilities. You have family coming to visit? Well you also have a sick client requesting your care at the same time – who do you prioritize? You need some time off to recover or do self-care? But how can you say no to someone who really wants your help and can only schedule ceremony during your time off? What about the clients who lie to you about their health history because they really want to drink your medicine even though they are on contraindicated medications or have a dangerous condition to mix with medicine? What about the client who doesn't tell you they have mental illness that can impact the ceremony? What about clients who release a lot of heavy energies in your house, and now your family might be sensitive to those energies? What about the times when you need the cash someone wants to pay you for ceremony, but you also know they need a break from ceremony and you need to sacrifice your ability to pay your bills to do the right thing for your client? There is a lot to consider here – it is all part of the job description of course, but it can be insightful to understand the sacrifices your healer might make to best serve their community. You really have the safety and health of someones body and spirit in your care – so this is a very large responsibility. If you aren’t willing to make the big sacrifices and hard decisions then you aren’t the right person for the job.
Of course, it isn’t all bad! While this style of healing work can come with it’s fair share of baggage, there is no better feeling then seeing a patient have a breakthrough or feeling the gratitude in your heart that comes from seeing so many people around you have deep and healing experiences with medicine work. For those really called to do this work, it often becomes a work of love and it is a great gift to be able to share such profound work with your community. As you go deeper and deeper into your practice as a healer it keeps giving more and more back to you – and a lot of the trials and difficult times that come with the work can really help you appreciate those blessings even more. You will learn and feel more then you ever knew possible as the medicine and your clients constantly challenge and inspire you.
For those feeling called to learn healing practices my biggest suggestion is take your time. Really focus on your personal healing as that will be your biggest strength and asset later on. Many of the most important lessons come from your self healing, and that is usually where you will develop your strength and empathy. Don’t chase the medicine but let it come to you in it’s own time and really be patient as you develop your gifts. There is no rush to do this work, and the more you do to build a strong foundation the more you and your clients will benefit in the future. Try to stay humble and keep your priorities in order. Don’t depend on this work to pay your bills. Do put the safety and health of your community and of yourself first so that you can stay in integrity with the work. Be willing to make the right sacrifices, but never sacrifice your integrity. When things get hard – pray and let the right way present itself. If you are meant for this work, you will find a way to make it happen.