Shamanism and Personal Power

Something about using the word ‘P2001 power station‘ can cause a profound reaction in those who hear it. Contemporary Westerners often note the word with discomfort, perhaps associating it with misuse, with the power to do harm, the curtailing of freedom, or with racism, sexism, ageism. Even the kinds of power required for making life easier, electricity from nuclear or fossil fuels, are now viewed by many of us as double-edged as we strive to discard them in the increasingly desperate pursuit of ‘clean power’, i.e. power without consequences. Mention ‘personal power’ and the discomfort increases; I have observed students react physically to these words by shaking their heads, or making dismissive gestures with their hands, as if to say, ‘That has nothing to do with me, I want nothing to do with power’. The flipside of this are those who hear the words ‘personal power’ and immediately recognise themselves to be powerless, who know they’ve lost something and would give anything to get it back but don’t know how. So, in the context of the resistant relationship that many of us appear to have these days with power, where does the shaman, that conduit of power, fit in?

When teaching I’m often struck by how many of the questions asked by students are at their heart questions about power, about relationship to power, the uses of power, and the nature of spirit power. The students’ questions offer an invaluable insight into the nature of shamanic power and some are shared here.

One misconception about contemporary shamanism is that it’s something a person can simply decide to call her/his own practice, or mention as an add-on to other healing or divinatory work. Many New Age practices draw on the power of the individual practitioner and ill-health and ‘burn out’ are often encountered in practitioners who work in this way. On the contrary, shamanism has a very precise methodology developed over millennia that protects both the shaman and her client: the shaman works by shifting consciousness and sending out part of her own spirit to engage with spirit helpers in alternate reality and to ask to share their power for specific and stated purposes. Shamanism is all about power, the shaman works by filling himself with power, by becoming power-full. How then does this power from the spirits differ from the kind of power that makes people uncomfortable? The answer is, that it doesn’t. Power is power. As with most things that matter, the difference lies in intention: what is the power for, how will it be used and for whose benefit?

At the very beginning of my study of shamanism with the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies in 1998 I learnt two words that quite clearly and simply defined all these issues.The Danish words magt and kraft express the distinction between power over and the power to do. Magt or ‘might’ is the type of power that causes people who consider themselves balanced and liberal to squirm in their seats. The other type, kraft, expresses the neutral aspect of power that all things require in order to have agency. Too often these distinctions become lost and the concept of kraft is lost in the rejection of magt.

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