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The Shaman Within

For this is the great error of our day that the physicians separate the soul from the body.” - Hippocrates

Medicine and Spirituality in History

Spirituality and medicine have been entangled since the beginning of time. The earliest doctors were religious leaders in tribes and communities, the priests, and the medicine men and women. The definition of healing even coincides with the medical and spiritual language. (Karren, Smith, Gordon, & Frandsen, 2014). According to “ancient wisdom, the words heal and health originally referred to being made whole—and both are associated with the concepts of “holy", "salvation", "to save”. Thus, salvation, which is the end goal of religious and spiritual practice, meant total well-being (health): spiritual, mental, physical, and social.” (Karren et al., 2014, p. 327)

The blend of physical, mental, and spiritual healing has come to be called integrative medicine. This healing depends on the emotional and physical contact between healer and patient. It emphasizes psychological and spiritual factors in the origin and remedy of sickness. Healers recognize the inborn self-healing tools that the mind and body inhibit and insist on the seeker to take “responsibility for restoring and maintaining health through behavioral, attitudinal, and spiritual balance.” (Tedlock, 2005, p. 14)

The influence of integrative medicine can be traced back to the traditions of ancient civilizations such as the Aztec, Maya, Native Indian Americans, Old Chinese, Greece and Rome, India, and African tribes. It has been widely taught in Hindu-related practices, Buddhism, Shamanism, and Ayurvedic approaches. (Karren, et al., 2014). The father of medicine emphasized that “curing a patient required knowledge of the “whole of things,” of mind as well as body.” (Karren, et al., 2014, p. 3) Unfortunately, his cautions were dismissed as medicine became separated from religion. After the scientific revolution, medicine went in the extreme opposite direction by rationalizing the healing processes as only being biological and psychological.

The spiritual medicine people became feared and shunned starting in the seventeenth century and began to be categorized as “witches,” “shamans,” “magicians,” “sorcerers,” and “diviners” all because they worked in spiritual ways. “The belief that any person who invoked spirits was calling upon the servants of Satan. Christianity elaborated on this Old Testament heritage: since good spirits such as angels and saints could not be compelled but only supplicated, any spirits that could be compelled were by definition evil, as were the practitioners who commanded them. This profound misunderstanding of shamanic spirituality led to the infamous sixteenth-century European witch hunts that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people, especially women.” (Tedlock, 2005, p. 49-50) The word “witch” comes from the Old English word “witan”. The definition meant “to know” or “to be wise”, it had nothing to do with evil. (Tedlock, 2005)

Luckily, there is healing in bringing spirituality back into medicine. There is a new scientific understanding of how faith, belief, and imagination can open the mystery of healing. The healing is bringing back together what has been separated, to re-create oneness, and to bring back to a balance of the physical, mental, and social systems. (Karen, et al., 2014)

Faith the Healer

...your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” - Jesus, Mark 5:34

Shamanic healing or integrative medicine uses the power of the patient’s faith in the healer and the healing process. As Tedlock (2005) suggests, like all healers, they encourage “hope, suggestion, expectation, and rituals that evoke a powerful placebo effect. This effect, which has been called “the doctor who resides within,” arises from a direct connection between positive emotions and the biochemistry of the body. By re-establishing emotional and spiritual equilibrium the healer strengthens the self-healing abilities of a patient. Research has shown that the use of songs, chants, prayers, spells, and music produce emotional states in a patient that affect the way the immune system responds to illness.” (p. 15) The healer is actually faith. When describing the secret of African Witch doctors, Schweitzer replied that: “The witch doctor succeeds for the same reason all the rest of us succeed. Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. We are at our best when we give the doctor within each patient a chance to go to work.” (Schweitzer, 2004)

All the healing tools that someone ever needs are within each individual self, it is just waiting to be seen and heard and expressed outward.

Other faith healing modalities that shamans utilize are:

Prayerful meditation: Prayer can be considered as an activity that creates closer contact with the transcendent. Prayer improves health by relieving stress. Prayer helps us meditate “by being still, knowing that something greater than ourselves can help us to solve problems and increase as human beings. In moments of stillness, between ego thoughts and fears, inspiration comes.” (Karren, et al., 2014, 338)

Encouraging Purpose/Altruism: As defined, altruism is “the act of giving of oneself out of a genuine concern for other people and the unselfish concern for the welfare of others.” (Karren, et al., 2014, p. 526) Having a sense of purpose and meaning gives a person an intention of value and something to believe in. This can evoke an altruistic sense of mission about one’s life. This involves serving something bigger than oneself. Altruism can give one a sense of connectedness to one’s deepest self, to others, the earth, and the universe. (Karren, et al., 2014)

Expressive Arts: The shamans sang chants and utilized different types of instruments to restore a sense of balance and for bringing up energies from the depths that needed to be released unconsciously. (Tedlock, 2005) According to Tedlock (2005), healers who encouraged their clients to “publicly perform their dreams in poetry, song, and dance are 80% effective in healing. While those who use more clinical and use psychoanalytic techniques to encourage clients to talk about, draw, paint, or describe their dreams in private, were only 30 percent effective.” (p. 16)

Forgiveness: Confession and forgiveness, which are central activities in shamanic healing, also evoke repressed memories that resolve conflicts. (Tedlock, 2005; Karren et al., 2014))

Compassion and Loving Connections through Community: Shamans believe in a web of life in which everything is interdependent and interconnected. No shaman exists without a culture or subculture to interact with. (Tedlock, 2005) Relationships are an essential part of spiritual well-being because it starts with letting go of the illusion of separation into embracing oneness. Most of our traumas, fears, and loneliness comes from the separation or pain of relationships gone wrong. It is important to find compassionate loving relationship, and that includes having a loving relationship with oneself. The “acceptance of others and oneself, flaws and all, with compassion, lies at the heart of spiritual well-being.” (Karen, et al., 2014) Social support improves health. Religious and spiritual communities usually create such support.

Connection to Self: The ultimate healer is not so much the doctor but rather ourselves. The healer is only here to point the way, it is the determination of the patient who makes the healing possible. This combination of faith and determination helps bring a sense of trust with the Spirit within the self as the main source of joy. The healer utilizes spiritual traditions to help a person to trust and believe in a way that activates natural healing processes within their own mind and body. (Karen, et al., 2014)


These sources of healing release endorphins and other endogenous chemicals generated in the human brain. Pharmacology and biology believe that these natural substances are as effective as psychotropic medications with tranquilizing effects maintaining chronic pain and anxiety. It releases joy and induces other altered states of consciousness. (Tedlock, 2005) Spiritual practices have been cited to reduce pain by increasing a sense of control that helped increase serotonin functions. Deep connections and spiritual experiences raise dopamine levels. Getting excited about a purpose or project can raise central norepinephrine levels. Meditation and prayer can improve “GABA function, a neurotransmitter that calms the overresponsive nervous system characteristic of many common illnesses such as headache, irritable bowel, anxiety, or chronic pain. Each of these neurochemical effects improves the nervous system suppression of pain. All in all, spiritual well-being greatly impacts the experience of life stressors, turning distress (the bad kind for health) into eustress (the good kind).” (Karen, et al., 2014, p. 333)

The spiritual is inclusive. It is the deepest sense of belonging and participation. We all participate in the spiritual at all times, whether we know it or not. There’s no place to go to be separated from the spiritual. . . . The most important thing in defining spirit is the recognition that spirit is an essential need of human nature. There is something in all of us that seeks the spiritual. This yearning varies in strength from person to person, but it is always there in everyone. And so healing becomes possible.” (Remen, 1988)


Cambridge University Press. (1996). Holy Bible: new international version. Cambridge.

Karren, K. J., Smith, L., Gordon, K. J., & Frandsen, K. J. (2014). Mind/body health: The effects of attitudes, emotions, and relationships, 5th edition. San Francisco, CA

Remen, Rachel Naomi. (1988). “On Defining Spirit,” Noetic Sciences Review, 7.

Albert Schweitzer, quoted by F. Charatan. (2004). “The Doctor Within,” British Medical Journal 328, 1426

Tedlock, B. (2005). The woman in the shamans body: reclaiming the feminine in religion and medicine. New York: Bantam Books.

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