Shamanism in 21st century America – Part 1: Modern initiation

    The purpose of each person’s soul is at the core of our health. Well-being springs from our doing what we’re uniquely here to do, which satisfies our soul in a way nothing else can. All things begin in spirit, so when our soul is well, we are well, we are passionate, and we share our gifts with others. When we fall out of balance, dis-ease begins first in our spirit. Illness then becomes physical, psychological and emotional. Shamanism offers us tools for healing the soul. When we’re strong of spirit, our hearts are open. We’re curious. We enrich the lives of others through the exchange of ideas, breaking bread together, sharing each other’s rituals, rejoicing in our shared relationship with spirit. Healing into one’s True Self becomes contagious. We redirect our lives toward expressing our unique spirit and the love that connects us.” – Christina Pratt

    Christina Pratt – shamanic healer, teacher and author – opened the Last Mask Center for Shamanic Healing in New York in 1990. She has been serving clients and communities of students on both coasts since then. She moved the center to Portland, Ore., in 2001. Pratt, a teacher of exceptional clarity, humor and inspiration, is a frequent and honored speaker for the American Holistic Medical Association, national conferences and schools, as well as local salons.

    Her training began in 1986 amid a lifetime of dance. Her shamanic work is a synthesis of studies with Ecuadorian, Tibetan, Tamang and African shamans, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, the Center for Intuitive Energy Processing, and personal shamanic experience. Her workshop "Masks of Illusions and the Authentic Self" was first offered in Hawaii in 1992. The four-part Cycle of Transformation process that she teaches has continued each year since, providing opportunities for transformation and initiation. The Last Mask Center offers a wide variety of individual and community shamanic healing experiences, workshops and classes.

    She recently returned to the Twin Cities to not only support her ongoing students and apprentices, but to support a new project of helping mothers learn about the initiation process for their teenage daughters. Parents of Waldorf students in the metro area were invited to an initial discussion about the creation of an initiating process. Pratt and her shamanic students expected a dozen parents to attend. Seventy-five showed up.

    What were the desires of the mothers who attended? Were they just wanting to get information about how they can help facilitate the process?
    Christina Pratt:
    There are some mothers who have had enough depth of personal process and personal experience in their own life that they knew this would be a big deal, that it was important to them. Other mothers that really wanted to come
    and get a handout and initiate their daughter that night. There was the whole range of interest. Some who might have even thought they knew what initiation might mean were really willing to understand it at a much deeper level. They
    were willing to acknowledge that to truly bring someone into adulthood, they have to face what, for them, they perceive as a fear of death. It’s a process of doing something that feels to them to be life threatening. That’s part of
    the reason parents can’t really initiate their children. As parents, it’s their job to keep them from those sorts of things.

    So at this first meeting, we talked about how we create a community so we can do this. Parents won’t be initiating their own children. They’ll be working with someone else’s child most likely. We talked about how do we do this in a good way. It’s a big learning curve for everybody.

    Have you done such a process before, elsewhere?
    I’ve only assisted small situations. We haven’t ever approached it from really
    opening it up to a community and letting it happen at a broader level.

    What’s the next step in that process?
    We have sorted those who attended into groups. There are some people who really just want something small and simple. I talked about how doing anything is better than doing nothing. There were people who don’t feel like they can really sign up for something that will most likely be a year-long process. And then we identified those who want the entire process. Now we have to understand how to give the groups different levels of stewardship.

    Then we need to start getting more clear on what is this going to mean. What is the commitment? What are the different roles? This process needs to be supported in the ordinary world, but it also has to be supported in the Spirit world – and how is that going to work? And who can actually take responsibility for the Spirit world piece? Who can get the guidance from Spirit?

    We’re essentially starting over again. We’re not trying to piggy-back onto a struggling, threatened culture that still initiates its kids. We’re trying to start over. In the beginning, some first parent asks, "How do I initiate this kid?" We’re asking that question again and starting over in that sense.

    Why is initiation important now?

    Many of the social ills that we face are the result of children in grown-up bodies making the grown-up decisions. Not to be offensive to anyone, but in the eyes of Spirit we’re still children culturally. I don’t really think that’s a great surprise to people. I mean, take a look at the United States’ foreign policy. It’s somewhat adolescent.

    There’s a perspective in shamanic cultures that the only way that you can become grown-ups is to make sure that what needs to happen at the stage between childhood and adulthood actually happens. Essentially, you’re addressing the ego. It needs to be formed enough to be a thing, but not so deeply rooted that the person can’t survive the collapse of it and the upwelling of something more.

    To put it in really contemporary terms, it’s the process of letting go of the part of yourself who still is looking to mom and dad for everything they didn’t give you as a child. You disconnect from this incredible attachment we have to family of origin and family of origin issues – and how we play out those issues in every other relationship that we have and pretty much make a mess of everything. It’s the same mess we’ve been in since we were kids. We’re just repeating it everywhere.

    In the ego death of initiation, the soul pulls the child forward into adulthood. As the soul reaches out, it doesn’t grab onto another human. It doesn’t grab onto mommy and daddy. The soul grabs onto the earth as the mother, and onto the sky as the father, and it realizes a deeper, spiritual, interactive relationship with the real world.

    That’s what we’re looking for: an adult who can take on an active, responsible working relationship with Spirit.

    They say, "Hmmm, what do I want to do in college? Well, I know what I feel like I want to do. I know what I have passion for. Let me go talk to my helping spirits and find out what’s really aligned with my soul."

    Just imagine if kids could access this really practical extra information for the choices that they make. Imagine what choices they’d be making – in terms of picking spouses and how they parent their children. At issue is the sense that if we were making decisions as adults instead of, frankly, as children, then the whole fabric of our society would be different.

    It’s really a re-bonding with our soul.
    CP: Yes. It’s an understanding that from a shamanic perspective, regardless of what shamanic culture you’re looking at, there is an assumption that to be an adult, you must have a relationship with Spirit. There’s a culturally sanctioned altered state method to connect with Spirit – and that’s what keeps the adults sane. We happen to live in one of the cultures on the planet that doesn’t have that.

    What that means from an indigenous perspective is that we are, by definition, insane. We don’t have this culturally sanctioned way to enter an altered state that allows you to have a direct relationship, direct contact, with the Divine, with the Spirit world. In our culture, we pathologize that.

    Let me go back to your original question of why we need initiation right now. There’s some pretty well-organized arguments, not my writing, but others, that gangs may very well be the expression of uninitiated children trying to get initiated. We know we need it, and so we create it unconsciously. The idea would be to leave the home and seek out a life-threatening experience. In shamanic cultures, you have that experience, and then you’re supposed to come back home and be greeted by your community, which says, "Yes! Now you’re an adult, and now here are your adult responsibilities."

    But in our world, these kids come back and nobody’s home. Nobody greets them. Nobody acknowledges them. So they go out and the level of the violence escalates. It needs to be that much more life-threatening the next time, and that much more life-threatening the next time. It’s a constant, unconscious seeking out of escalating threat to try to be initiated.

    The real problem is that there’s nobody home to say, "Yes" and then to define, "And now, these are your adult responsibilities."

    In our culture, the way the community responds to them is by locking them up and removing them from the community.

    CP: Exactly. What we’d like to do is create a situation where they don’t have to go do the life-threatening thing unconsciously in the first place. We don’t want that violent thing happening. What we want to do is to be able to have an initiation process available to kids so that they can do that and complete that process and come back to a community that says, "Yes, you did it. You survived."

    What would be an example of something that somebody would go through during an initiation to fulfill that type of experience?

    Well, in indigenous cultures it’s pretty scary. What some of my colleagues have done in contemporary times is that they’ve asked the child to select from several options, something that they’re afraid to do that really does have a threat of death in it, like learning to scuba dive or learning to do something that if you screw up, you could die for sure.

    Or jumping out of an airplane.

    CP: Yes. The idea is to pick something that forces you to really engage a sense
    of mortality, that "even though I’m a child and I think I’m going to live forever, I could die if I screw this up."

    In indigenous cultures in the past, the shamans were able to create non-ordinary altered state experiences by opening portals into different worlds that were horrifying – and you either got yourself back out by following the rules, or not. If you broke the rules at all, you didn’t get back out again. That’s one thing that people don’t like to hear, but in pre-contact indigenous cultures, there was often a child who didn’t make it through initiation.

    What would happen? Would they die?

    They would either die physically, or sort of not return from one of these really scary things.
    They’d never be the same again.

    They’d come back and be kind of crazy, you know, in a not functional way. They would be cared for, but they would never really become an adult in that culture.

    The other thing I think about in terms of why we need to do initiations now is how that would change us culturally. If this were a broad movement, not just here in Minneapolis, we would need as a culture to be clear about the responsibilities of an adult. We live in a culture that glorifies youthfulness, but it treats our kids very badly, frankly. We don’t pay our teachers, we don’t really care for and tend the spirits of our children as we need to. In the shamanic culture, the children are the future. They are the wealth of the culture. They are the highest priority, other than basic survival

    That is not our culture. We may think it is, but it’s really not. As adults, we are not clear about what it means to be a grown-up, to be a wise person. In our culture, our elders don’t act like elders. They’ve been basically behaving like children their whole lives. They want respect as elders, but they don’t really have very good ideas, because they’re still trying to get over what mommy and daddy didn’t do.

    The fabric of the culture, from the sense of how you care and tend the development of a child’s soul, has completely fallen apart. What we would do on our end as adults is to try to clean up our act, but we don’t need to make these children wait until we get it cleaned up. We can still do our best to initiate them now, trusting that they’ll be able to do a better job with their children and just get the ball rolling.

    In terms of where the culture is now, do you see that it’s continuing to disintegrate?

    If we don’t make a change, then it will. We’re living in the logical conclusion of a belief system, right? There has to be a paradigm shift for us to get a different option. I don’t think the current belief system we’re living in is sustainable. I think people would argue with me about that, but they’re delusional (laughing). I’m not a very politically fervent person, but there are some things that are just so obvious. You have to be really delusional and in denial to not see them, you know?

    You can’t see the trees for the forest.

    I think the whole reason shamanic techniques were developed was because people tend to either not be able to see the forest for the trees, or be so far out there all they see is the forest and they never acknowledge the trees. There are skills present to help us balance ourselves – to acknowledge our human tendencies, but compensate for them. That’s the most basic benefit of shamanic skills for contemporary people. There’s a whole skill set that I just consider part of being a spiritual grown-up. They don’t make you a shaman, in terms of that’s your job, but these certainly are skills that come from shamanic cultures and have that history.

    How do you define shamanism?

    Academically speaking, I offer a middle road definition. There are some very extremely nit-picky definitions, in my opinion, and some definitions that are so broad they don’t help us.

    A couple things before I get to that definition. From my perspective, human beings are designed to enter altered states – and there’s probably a bazillion altered states we can enter. Not every altered state is a shamanic altered state. Some people think if you enter an altered state, it’s shamanic, I don’t agree with that at all.

    Shamanic altered states have very clear characteristics, the primary one being that it’s task oriented. You’re there for a reason you’re there to do something. You’re not there to lose yourself. There are many meditative techniques that are about merging and losing yourself. These are very valid practices, but they are not shamanic trance states just because you’re going into the Spirit world or inviting the Spirit world here and embodying Spirit here. Shamanic altered states are all about: "I have a job to do. I’m just a human and I can’t do it alone."

    My definition of a shaman then is a practitioner who is intentionally entering an altered state. Be very aware that the shamanic part of the practice is not happening in an ordinary operating state of being. There’s an intentional entry into the altered state. Shamans are there to do something in the Spirit world that will affect a desired change here in the physical world – for the benefit of the others in the community.

    All three of those things have to be in place, from my perspective, to be shamanism. It is the intentional, controlled, entry into and exit from the altered state. That’s a whole path of training right there. It’s not random. These aren’t random spirits. Essentially, I work with the same group of spirits. It’s not a random willy-nilly communicating with whatever.

    It’s probably just like our ordinary world. There are so many distractions in the altered states.

    Exactly. So in shamanism, there is an intentional working relationship. Some shamans may work an entire lifetime with just one or two spirits and no others. For others, the more spirits you work with, the more you can do different things. But the point is this: You know who you’re working with. The shaman is in control of the entry and the exit of this state. If I was not in control, I would be a crazy person. It’s not just the fact that you can get in, but that you also are in control of exiting the altered state.

    Part two of the definition is the effectiveness, that I’m here on a mission and I do something in the Spirit world that accomplishes that mission here in the physical world. That defines shamanism as distinct from other healing practices. We’re working on the spiritual aspect of a problem. We may not be solving everything with this problem, but we’re solving the spiritual piece. We’re putting energies back where they belong so things can be in well-being here.

    The third piece is what distinguishes the shaman from the sorcerer. I am acting based on the needs and to benefit an individual or a community. Sorcery, in the best light, is a path of personal development. It’s Carlos Casteneda with Don Juan, who is a brujo, not a shaman. He’s a sorcerer. It’s the path of, "How powerful can I be? What’s the extent to which I can push this capacity as a human being, in the best possible light that doesn’t necessarily harm anyone?" The ego’s very tricky, and the more powerful you get, the more powerful your ego gets. It’s easy to fool yourself on that path of "me, me, me."

    I deeply believe that we have to let people act on their own highest potential, to the extent that they’re not harming anyone, so they can learn from their own truth. It’s just like my willingness to let people stay unconscious and beat their children and drink their life into the gutter. Well, if that’s their highest belief, we can’t just go in, other than getting the children out of the situation. People have to be allowed to make their own mistakes. What we want to do as a culture is hold them in a way so they can learn from experience. Like you were saying, just locking up the kids doesn’t hold them in a way they can learn both ordinarily-wise and Spirit-wise. I have worked with inmates actually, the ones who take accountability for what they did. One of the big shocks they get is when they realize, "My choices affected other people." It’s like somehow they didn’t get that basic training. That’s partly what they’re having to contemplate in jail.

    It’s a really a basic shamanic principle, that we’re all connected. Our choices affect things. But not all people get that.

    For more information on Christina Pratt and the Last Mask Center for Shamanic Healing, visit, call toll-free 1 (800) 927-2527, extension 02586, or e-mail



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