core shamanism

21st Century Shamanism

21st Century Shamanism By Jan Engels-Smith

Life is a journey of becoming. The goal of the journey is not in its destination; rather, it is the understanding and wisdom that emerges from the journey.

My hope is that as you read this article you fill with wonder and an interest in pursuing further learning and experiences in shamanism. Practicing and exploring the shamanic landscape offers everyone the opportunity to discover anew what we once knew, and to benefit from the wisdom that is still available to us. I have witnessed the transformation, vitalization, and growth of thousands of people, including myself, who have found healing, fulfillment, and joy in this journey.

What is Shamanism?

I get asked this question daily. Looking back in history, shamanism is an ancient tradition that dates back at least 40,000 years and was a part of most ancient indigenous cultures. It is a healing method based on the understanding that all experiences affect one’s soul; thus, all healing comes through the soul. Once the soul is healed, other healings can manifest in the physical, emotional, and mental bodies. I believe this perception of the mended and healthy soul that brings healing to all aspects of one’s being is truer than most people realize. We are a soul/spirit having a human experience. When we realize this and address the soul in healing, we will be healthier in our mind, body, and emotions.

What is a Shaman?

21st century shamanism


The Siberian definition of the word shaman is “someone who sees in the dark with his or her heart.” This is a loving expression of service. The shaman is dedicated to the cause of helping alleviate suffering in the world.

Some of you may have read about shamanic experiences in texts such as the Carlos Castaneda series of books. These books describe shamans in a particular way that differs from the view of 21st Century Shamanism. These books are more about the ancient mystical power of the shaman and less about the shaman as healer.

The history of shamanism has provided different accounts of the practice and diverse images of how the shaman exists in various cultures. All are powerful and speak to the needs of their contemporaneous civilization.

Following common protocol, you would never call yourself a shaman. It is a title given to you by your community after training, experience, and proven results are recognized and valued.

21st Century Shamanism

For many people, images of masks, grass skirts, painted faces, and witch doctor cures are conjured up when they consider the word shaman. Some of these images are historically accurate. However, there is now a 21st century version of a shaman, which I use as a model for my teachings. A significant consideration to this concept of contemporary shamanism is the current context of an emerging spiritualism which represents an essential answer to the seemingly hopeless and helpless situations that modern humans face in a world gone wrong. Shamanism offers a bridge from an imperfect world to a universe of perfection, where healing and a new beginning are possible.

The emerging modern 21st century shaman is required in a world in dire need of healing and in a culture that thirsts for a spiritual reconnection to our True Selves. Thus, I see shamanism as it relates to energy medicine as existing to help relieve suffering in the world, as well as a component of human enlightenment. One of the intentions that I personally carry is to consciously broadcast light and love into the world while experiencing joy. Light and joy are major healing elements, alleviating suffering in countless ways.

The Siberian characterization of a shaman as one who has a heart that yearns to be of service is full of implications for me. The 21st Century shaman believes in quality of life, happiness, and love; that everyone deserves the best possible life; to be healthy emotionally and physically; and that each person is a radiant being of light. Seeing into the dark means that shamanic journeys will often take us into unseen realms where there isn’t “light” to visually see with your eyes. Yet the heart guides us with such luminous radiance that it casts its own brilliance through the strong sense of love that emanates outward, bringing different realities into view.

The darkness and the heart play a significant and multilayered part in shamanic practice. When we are journeying, (a shamanic style of obtaining information from the unseen realms) if there is light in the room, we use eye covers to produce a condition of total darkness. Eliminating your “ordinary reality” senses and creating a totally dark environment allows you to descend deep inside of yourself, and you are able to access information from “non-ordinary reality” using all your senses.

Core Shamanism

Shamanism, as it is taught and practiced in 21st Century Shamanism, is not a doctrine or a tradition, but is grounded in the core concept of historical shamanism.

In the core practice of the 21st Century Shamanism we envision, we are asking you to develop your own personal relationships with your own personal spirit guides. You are not asked to follow a particular tradition or set of standards. You are setting your own standards as to what is important and meaningful to you, and your choices determine who appears in your journeys.

In modern shamanism, our reconnection to the past is for the purpose of personal empowerment. This new journey is about finding your own path, the one that works for you, while using some core concepts that are from indigenous cultures around the world. Modern shamanism owes a great debt to the past and sustains a strong connection to our ancestors, but is also deeply embedded in the present and accessible by all people who choose to follow the contemporary path. We do not abandon the current world and seek a return to the past, rather we draw on the wisdom of the past to help heal a present that has forgotten how to be at one with the universe, and has a need to restore a unified existence.

Historically, our culture has not endorsed the magic and the miracles of a personal connection to spirit. We have spent hundreds of years out of touch with our own divinity. Many humans have spent many lifetimes experiencing the hardships in life – betrayal, doubt, prejudice, abuse, unworthiness, inadequacy, hatred, and war. These lifetimes were not grounded in love, but in fear.

In the 21st Century, we understand the tools for healing are vast, all encompassing, and within reach of everyone. We are the creators of the future and our tools of creation are our thoughts and words. Each person plays a vital role in the creation of their life, their environment, and their world. Quantum physics has revealed that the simple act of observation has a tremendous impact on that which is being observed. As scientists attempted to observe matter at the sub-atomic level they discovered, to their initial surprise, that their observation itself altered and mutated the matter. Physicists have come to understand that existence itself is so highly interdependent that even the engagement of consciousness with external matter and force fields changes the nature of what they study.

The message from this for humankind is that we can truly create force fields of change by our very thoughts and intentions, we can alter the vibrations surrounding all of us, and the spiritual forces emanating from and to us are real and ever active. These understandings, combined with basic shamanic journey skills, have the capacity to empower individuals like never before.

Jan’s book, Through the Rabbit Hole: Explore and Experience the Shamanic Journey and Energy Medicine is a wonderful starter text to begin your journey into 21st Century Shamanism and energy medicine.

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The Medicine Wheel Explained

The Medicine Wheel in Core Shamanism Explained by Jan Engels-Smith

Medicine Wheel
The Medicine Wheel is a universal model for depicting life in order to better understand it. We find it from ancient times in various forms in indigenous cultures all over the world. Being cross cultural qualifies it as a core shamanic concept. In its main form it is a directional circle divided into quadrants, each with its own particular attributes. Some versions have more than four parts. Each nation, culture or tribe has its own particular depiction. Even within cultures, different teachings provide differing versions. In fact, the Medicine Wheel is open to interpretation, and you can develop your own by working with it as a sacred tool to understand and describe your own philosophy. This article describes my personal relationship with the Medicine Wheel, developed in communication with my guides and the spirits, over decades of experience. It is not meant to represent any particular cultural or historical version. I share my unique personal version with you here because it has served me well and aided me greatly in my spiritual development.

There is a striking difference in the way that indigenous cultures viewed life, compared to the modern Western world view. They saw it as a cyclical progression of events, hence best depicted by a circular representation. The modern Western viewpoint sees life as linear, characterized by starts and stops. The right brain finds it easier to imagine eternity and infinity, whereas for the left brain, life is finite and limited. When one sees reality in the circular pattern, then one can understand our progress as the never-ending passage of a point around a circle of infinity.

Each quadrant of the Medicine Wheel is associated with qualities including Direction, Season, time of day, color, element, animal, bird or other creature; and other attributes, such as rebirth, bounty, harvest, wisdom, and so on. Together, these constitute a coherent portrait of the whole quadrant, giving us guidelines to work with for where we are in various aspects of our life.

The reason we work with the Medicine Wheel is so as to develop a lens to understand our life, to make progress within it, and to make peace with ourselves for the stages we find ourselves experiencing, in different areas of our life. Besides the four directions of East, South, West and North, we also honor the directions of Above, Below and Within. After I describe the attributes of these seven directions, I will explain the purpose of the wheel, and how to apply it to your life. Remember, there are as many versions of the Medicine Wheel as there are cultures and teachers. There is no wrong or right. In working with it, you can explore and develop your own attributes for the quadrants. What follows are mine.


Let us begin with the East, as this is where the sun rises. With each sunrise we are blessed with a rebirth of hope and faith in new possibilities and infinite potential.

Season: Spring — a new beginning, first signs of new life after winter

Color: Yellow — the color of the sun

Animal: Eagle — vision, perspective, seeing the big picture

Element: Air — mental clarity, new ideas and inspiration


Moving clockwise, we find ourselves in the South. Here the Sun is in the noontime position in the sky, representing the midpoint of our activities. We see the height of the results of our endeavors.

Season: Summer — the full bloom of trees and flowers in the garden, and of the fruits of our labor

Color: Red — beauty, bounty

Animal: Horse — the freedom and vitality of the wild mustang

Element: Fire — passion, transmutation, transformation


Continuing on our journey, we arrive in the West. Here it is evening time, when the native peoples gathered together to tell stories. These oral traditions held the culture together, with the elders sharing knowledge of what worked and didn’t work, and the wisdom of their experience, with successive generations.

Season: Fall — gathering together, resting after harvest

Color: Black — the darkness inside caves, dreaming

Animal: Bear — introspection, birthing wisdom

Element: Water — emotion, reflection


Now we reach the North. Here, during the night, we die to the old ways that no longer serve us. North is our opportunity to let go of patterns that do not work, so that we can be reborn in the Spring without the burdens of past failures. To do this, we need to bring those patterns into our conscious awareness, to thank them for their lessons, and to consciously get rid of them. This is a season to let go of any behaviors or connections that do not bring us joy.

Season: Winter — quiet, silence, dying to our old self

Color: White — snow, wise elders, ancestors (white hair)

Animal: Buffalo — wisdom, steadfast prayer, and meditation

Element: Spirit — love and healing


These directions do not have as many defined attributes as the four cardinal directions.

Above is blue, and it includes all those we call the Sky People, such as the moon, the sun, stars, and the clouds.

Below is green, encompassing the Earth and all earthly beings such as the standing ones (trees), the finned ones, the winged ones, and the stone nation.

Within is purple, sacred space; representing our connection heart to heart, and our connection to the Divine

And so we come to the end of our description of the main attributes of the seven directions. With this explanation, we have described everything that is. The Medicine Wheel represents the birth, life and death process. All experiences in your life fall somewhere on this wheel. You, as a complex living being, have different phases and aspects, and these are at different points on the wheel. For example, chronologically you may be in one position on the Wheel, but professionally or metaphysically, you may be at other positions. By paying heartfelt attention to the seasons and your own natural rhythms, you can gradually come into greater harmony and balance. We move around the Wheel, enter and exit its phases, and go full circle. The Wheel is a dynamic representation of all life and can facilitate our interactive relationship with our own life. As we become more aware of our inner life, our needs, and our strengths, that in turn influences our progress towards restoring balance in our inner and outer life.

In Western culture, there is a tendency to emphasize the East and the South as positive directions. The culture rewards us in times of action and productivity. Outward oriented people find themselves in the majority. The directions of the West and the North, those necessary times of reflection, incubation, and letting go, are labeled with negative attributes, considered anti-social, or seen as depression. Typically as a culture, people tend to burn out, getting sick or injured before admitting to a need to rest and recharge. Refusing to rest or reflect, we are forced into those states by accidents or crises. It would be so much better to live life in a balanced way, listening to the cues sent to us by our bodies, our dreams, and our life, and taking our rest times when we naturally need them, rather than when trouble forces us to take a break. The goal is to experience balance by going around the wheel with the rhythms of nature, participating in all the attributes in turn. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you live your life according to the actual seasons. It does mean that by paying attention to your feelings and by listening to subtle cues from your body, your relationships, and work, you become gradually more aligned with the universe and with your higher wellbeing.

The Medicine Wheel is a gift to us from our wise ancestors who were in harmony with the rhythms of the earth. They recognized that there was a time for everything. They observed that the Earth had natural seasons, and that all things experience cycles, for example the Moon. Nothing that exists can be active all the time, but benefits from rest. By regularly experiencing periods of reflection, we recharge. Energized by these rest periods, the change and rebirth that follow are occasions for celebration. We become conscious participants in all phases of our life.

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Core Shamanism and Power Songs

Core Shamanism and Power Songs by Jan Engels-Smith

Core Shamanism and Power Songs


In core shamanism, we want you to develop your own song; these are called power songs. We all have them. Every person alive has a power song, somewhere inside them.

When you discover and begin to sing your power song, it makes you get bigger. In Siberia they call this feeling of expansion your Windhorse. Do you ever feel like that? Like you are really big and extend way out? And other times you feel really small? We want you to be really big, and full of power. If you are going to do journey or healing work, we want your energy to be full force. You want to be connected above, below, and to the elements. You want to be able to hold that energy and do your healing work from that place. Then the healing work will be powerful; you will become the “hollow bone.” That means that it is not you that is doing the work, but the power of the Spirits working through you.

When we are trying to find a power song, you may notice sounds emanating from you that you don’t recognize. It may be a different language, or in some native cultures they use vocables. Vocables are sounds that are not necessarily words, because it is believed that if you make a word out of the sound it limits it, you have captured its power. That means that the only power it holds is defined by that word. It has more power than that, so you don’t confine it to a word. Vocables are very common.

In discovering your power song, you are invoking a part of your essence that is much more than who you are, in this physical body, in this incarnation. You have a soul history. You have been different nationalities, lived during different times on the earth, and you still have those memories inside you. So, sometimes when you start to bring up your power, it might be coming from that other lifetime. It may even be in a language you don’t know or understand. Just give yourself permission to make noise. It is another example of getting out of the box, and allowing yourself to grow.

Once your power song is established, it will be a song that gels over time. The more you sing that same song, the more it will solidify and the more power it will hold.

When the spirits told me I was going to have to sing in front of other people, I refused! I said, No! I am not going to do that! I put up the biggest fight for the longest time. Finally, I got used to it.

I want you to take one step forward. What is that? You are stepping out of the box! I want you to ask your helpers, your allies, whoever those beings are that love you, “Let me start bringing up this power song. Let something come forth that is my particular power song.” That is your intention, and that is exactly what is going to happen.

So, get a drum, and while you are drumming, open your mouth and make noise. Suspend any discomfort and go for it. Find your voice. Try to give yourself permission, and trust the process. You will not get the whole thing at once, but as you practice bringing up your power, your song will be developed.

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What is Core Shamanism?

What is Core Shamanism? by Jan Engels-Smith

Core Shamanism


When we study shamanism’s core values, we don’t get confused or side-tracked by specific traditions or dogmas that a particular belief system might hold. For example, I was adopted into a Lakota family many years ago, and in those particular indigenous ways of living, there is a set protocol on how you connect to spirits, and which spirits they are. You have certain songs that connect you to them, and certain ceremonies that connect you to them. They would not be accepting of a core shamanic way of doing things, because they have a specific protocol and way of doing it. As a matter of fact, the Lakota people would say, “You are wrong.” They are very, very strict in their ceremonies and methodologies, as are most native traditions. In core shamanism, we are asking you to develop your own personal relationships, with your own personal spirit guides. You are not asked to follow a particular dogma or set of standards.

You are setting your own standards as to whom and what is important to you, and who comes to you in your journeys.

If you were to follow one particular tradition, there are definite right and wrong ways and methods. There are specific ways to do things, ways to believe, and dogmas. You can follow a path that has been defined by history, and by a group of people doing certain things a certain way. What we are doing is not following a particular path, it is not about that. It is about you becoming empowered within yourself. It is you finding your own path, the one that works for you, and using some core concepts that are from indigenous cultures around the world. I am extremely eclectic. I work with the Egyptian mystery schools, as well as the Native Americans, Celtic, South Americans, and others. If you were interested in a more traditional way, you would pick one of those things and follow it precisely.

Another interesting concept introduced in the range of possibilities in 21st Century Shamanism comes from the fact that we live in a time of global awareness. For example, indigenous people didn’t have any way of knowing what type of animals existed outside of a very small range of territory. So, if you lived in North America, you had no clue what an elephant or a giraffe was. If you lived in Africa, you would have no idea what a mountain lion looked like. Now we have a diverse awareness of animals globally, so the type and variety of power animals coming into our journeys is much greater. It opens many more possibilities for people. So, I have found this way of being extremely empowering because if you get a particular animal that is not seen as some other tradition, you still claim it.

In shamanism, everything is seen as alive and intelligent. The clouds are alive, they have intelligence, they have wisdom, and you can communicate with them.

Everything is respected and honored in its life force, in its life existence. A stone or a rock is seen as a wisdom keeper. They have been around for millions of years, and they have recorded all of this information in them. Stones carry vast amounts of wisdom. They are the bones of the earth. You can tap into this wisdom by learning to communicate, to journey with the rock. They are incredible spirit allies that can provide all kinds of information. In a sweat lodge, they heat the rocks really hot, and then pour water on them, like a sauna. The idea is that you are releasing the energy in the rock so that it can speak to you and give you information. These things have spirits, they have families.

All things are seen as having a vast amount of intelligence and kinship. You are in relationship to everything. We are sharing life together. We are all on this planet, breathing the same air. The elements play a key role in core shamanism. For example, the spirit of the air is a vast spirit. It is the first spirit you meet when you are born, and is necessary for maintaining life. It is the last spirit that leaves your body when you die. It has an incredibly intimate relationship with you. Have any of you thanked the air lately, for this amazing act of love? It greets you, it sustains you.

In shamanism, all things are looked at as beings you can communicate with and honor. They can be in service to you; they can guide and inform you.

Believe me, the elements are amazing helpers.

The term, Mitakuye Oyasin, means we are related to each other, we are related to the clouds, the standing ones, the winged ones, the creepy-crawlers, the finned ones, all the different animals in the world. We are in relationship with them. We are in relationship with the elements. We carry the elements in our bodies; our bodies are made up of the elements. There is nothing we are not in relationship with. You are in relationship with the stars. You are communicating to them and they are communicating back to you. The question is: How do you open up these lines of communication?

With every action and every word, you are affecting everything else. Everything you do is affecting everything else.

There is an incredible web of life, in which all life is interacting, and you are a major player in it. The more you understand and accept that the things you do have an effect on everything else, the more you bring that healing component into everything that you are doing. Everything has intelligence. Things we may not think of as being alive, having a heartbeat and a pulse, are alive.

When we are working in journeys, things are alive, things are magical, and things in a journey do not follow our physical laws. Animals, like elephants, can swim under water and they can fly. There are no physical limitations to them like there are on the planet. It is the same with us, we can do all those things, we can fly, and we can breathe underwater. So, it’s fun to journey. The realms that we  journey can be found in the range of concepts we refer to as core shamanism.

My book, Through the Rabbit Hole: Explore and Experience the Shamanic Journey and Energy Medicine is a wonderful starter text to begin your journey into core shamanism and energy medicine.

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What is a Shaman?

What is a Shaman? by Jan Engels-Smith

What is a Shaman?


I get asked these questions daily that hold a standard that has directed my life and beliefs and made me into what I am today. Images of masks, grass skirts, painted faces, and witch doctor cures are conjured up with the word Shaman for many people. Some of these images are historically accurate; however there is now the 21st century version of a shaman.

The Siberian definition of the word shaman is someone who “sees in the dark with his or her heart.”

This “sight” caused me to found the LightSong School – 21st Century Shamanism and Energy Medicine™ and establish a healing practice that brings me joy, success and fulfillment. The Siberian definition of shaman that describes a person who has a heart that yearns to be of service is full of implications for me. The shaman believes in quality of life, happiness, love, and that everyone deserves the best, deserves to be healthy and is a radiant being of light. Seeing into the dark also means that often shamanic journeys will take us into unseen realms where there isn’t enough “light” to sustain life. Yet the heart guides us with such luminous radiance that it casts its own brilliance through the strong sense of love that emanates and helps manage these “dark” places.

The darkness plays a big part in things, and the heart plays a big part in things. When we are journeying, we try to make a really dark environment. If there is light in the room, we have eye covers. When you take away your “ordinary reality” senses and create a really dark environment, you go really deep inside of yourself, and you will be able to access information from “non-ordinary reality,” using the senses that you carry on the inside. The shaman sees in the dark with their heart; this is a loving expression of service.

Another definition of a shaman is someone who is dedicated to alleviating suffering in the world.

Both of those indicate a service-oriented approach to healing. Some of you may have read books about shaman experiences, such as the Carlos Castaneda series of books. These books also describe shamans, but they are not necessarily shamans in the way that we look at shamanism. These books were more about big power than being a healer. You can have different definitions by looking across history and reading different accounts. Most are going to have a healing quality; some are going to be more interested in power.

Shamanism is an ancient tradition that dates back at least 40,000 years and was used by most indigenous cultures in the world. It is a healing method based on the understanding that all experiences affect one’s soul, and thus all healing comes through the soul. Once the soul is healed, other healings can manifest in the physical, emotional, and mental bodies. I believe that this definition is more accurate than most people realize.

We are a soul/spirit having a human experience. When we realize this, and address the soul in healing, we will be healthier in our mind, body, and emotions.

Shamanism, as it is taught and practiced in 21st Century Shamanism, is not a doctrine, it is not a tradition; is core shamanism. This means that if you went to any indigenous place, anywhere in the world, and studied how their people connected with spirit, you would find certain things in common. North America, South America, Africa, Australia, Europeans, Siberians, Aboriginals, Eskimos all have particular attributes and ways of connecting with the spirits that are similar. Some of those common things are the use of the drum, the rattle, song, and journeying or communicating with the different worlds and the spirit allies that live there.

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